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STAGE REVIEW : 'Depot' Delivers the Message

December 18, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Scrooge did not feel like driving down to USC Wednesday night to see Shirley Knight in a one-act play directed by Joanne Woodward, aimed at raising everyone's consciousness about the threat of nuclear arms. Sorry, we gave at the office.

Scrooge was further irritated at the way the people with the Sane/Freeze buttons kept smiling at each other in the lobby of the Bing Auditorium before the show, in the maddeningly superior manner of the saved. Welcome, sister! Welcome, brother! It was enough to make a man want to get un-saved.

Scrooge had seen these shows before, and he knew exactly how this one would go. Shirley Knight in a black gown, making a quiet plea for the children of the world. Please, Mr. Politician. Please, Mr. Arms Manufacturer. Won't you listen . . . before it's too late?

Scrooge was wrong. "The Depot," which is running at Bing Auditorium at 8 p.m. through Saturday, is definitely a piece with a message. (A message not fundamentally changed by the summit. The audience is reminded that withdrawing 2,000 nuclear warheads from U.S-Soviet competition still leaves 48,000 at the ready.)

But Eve Ensler's play is not a tract. It is a play. An entertaining one. A funny one. Ensler's script gives you permission to laugh out loud, and Knight's performance makes it mandatory.

She does not wear a black evening gown. It is not likely that her character, Barbara, owns such a piece of apparel. Barbara is into sweats these days--pastel ones. She may be a little chubby, but she still thinks she has a certain je ne sais quoi, and in Knight's performance this is undeniably true.

The scene is an MX missile site somewhere in Utah. Barbara is one of the women who have started a peace camp on the other side of the barbed wire, the only one we see. She is rather a late-comer to the anti-nuclear cause, but nobody holds that against her, including Barbara. She has been awfully busy at home for 30 or so years, what with picking up after everybody.

Now, however, Barbara has seen the light and found her mission! Like all converts, she has an immediate need to convert somebody else, and this opportunity presents itself in the person of a young military guard (Rob Erbert.) He won't tell her his name, or anything else, so she decides to call him Girard.

"Girard the Guard," she repeats, enchanted with the rhyme. It's possible to imagine Alice Ghostley having as much fun with this line, but nobody could have more fun with it than Knight does--or with Barbara, either.

This is a wonderful character. Something like the club ladies of the old New Yorker cartoons, but brought up to date. (One can't imagine one of those women confessing to Girard that she had a sex dream about him last night, a remark that mortifies Girard, who is probably 19.)

Barbara is zany on the surface, but practical at heart. This is preferable to being practical on the surface but zany underneath, like the people in Washington who decided it would be clever to ride MX missiles around the desert floor on railroad tracks--a sort of giant Lionel train layout.

Even Barbara would have known better than to entrust weapons to "public transportation," for heaven's sake! She gives Girard many other informed opinions about the nuclear craziness as well. The aim isn't so much to get him to embrace the anti-nuclear cause, as to get him to see why nice, sensible, patriotic Americans (such as herself) would support it.

Whether Barbara breaks Girard's manly concentration can't be revealed here. But we can reveal that she does everything that a respectable woman can do in that direction, including tap-dance and sing "Margie."

Barbara is a hoot. She reminds you of Winnie in Beckett's "Happy Days," valiantly chattering away in the wilderness. But where Winnie's chatter is in vain, Barbara's is on the button.

At a panel after the show, Ensler said, rightly, that pieces like this may very well exist to preach to the already converted. Why not, if it gets the converted into the mood to act on their beliefs?

Barbara certainly got Scrooge to thinking about that march to the Nevada test site next spring.

For more information about "The Depot," call (213) 938-2344.

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