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THEATER REVIEW : Troubled Little House on the Prairie : 'Artichoke' dramatizes the art of accommodation, focusing on the isolation of life and festering pride.

March 26, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times

Forgiveness may not sound like a dramatic subject for a play, but "Artichoke," by Canadian playwright Joanna Glass, warmly dramatizes the art of accommodation in a finely spun production by the American Renegade Theatre Company.

Set in a farmhouse with the hint of a vast Saskatchewan prairie visible through the kitchen window, the show catches the isolation of life on a remote farm and the festering pride that simmers, boils over and ultimately reunites a farmer and his wife, who haven't slept together for 14 years.

That's how long it's been since Margaret (the passionate Elizabeth Meads) banished her husband, Walter (the sullen Frank Farmer), to the smokehouse for his fling with a woman he hired as a "water witch" to cure the drought on his land. Nine months later, she dropped a baby bundle on his smokehouse porch and vanished.

Because that's what you do if you live on the prairie, the farmer's wife took the baby in and raised it as her daughter (Courtney Hammill's lanky adolescent obsessed with wearing hats and balancing Emily Post on her head). As for Walter, he remained a good provider and, anyway, had his own woman in town who provided "relief" once a month.

That's how it is in a world where you can't turn your back so easily, where somebody has to feed the stock and wash the dishes. You endure through gnashed teeth, and Glass' well-written play deftly mirrors this theme, which ends in renewed hope.

But as the drama opens, the long-embittered Margaret, full of romantic anticipation, is about to take in somebody who promises rebirth: a vulnerable young man named Gibson (Barry Thompson's sensitively shaded misfit), who specializes in teaching Alexander Pope. Gibson is a semi-relative orphaned and adopted years before by Margaret's father (Mike Reynolds poking around the margins of the play as sage old Gramps).

Framing the action like a nosy, folksy Greek chorus are a pair of bachelor sodbusters, Archie and Jake (the amusingly hayseedy Steven Hastings and Paul Vent).

Although the cast is a touch flat in the opening act, the actors, under David Cox's measured direction, eventually fill their characters with the breath of life, and the play crests on a wave of multilayered rhythms.

The intellectual Gibson and the nervous Margaret, with Meads and Thompson creating tremulous inner currents, have a summer-long affair as her angry husband, etched with underlying affability by Farmer, slams the screen door and holes up for the summer with the hayseeds down the road.

But everyone learns something here, not least the professor who discovers that he's not cut out to be a farmer. All ends in a sweet calm with an inevitability redolent of human accommodation.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "Artichoke."

Location: American Renegade Theatre, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through April 18.

Price: $12 to $15.

Call: (818) 763-4430.

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