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THEATER REVIEW : OCC Neuters 'Aunt Dan and Lemon'

August 24, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — Aunt Dan and Lemon aren't going away.

Some probably wished they would have done just that after they first appeared in 1985. The thoughts that came out of these two women's mouths, with nobody to contradict them, made creator Wallace Shawn--for a time, anyway--America's most hated playwright.

But the suspicion by even some non-Shawn-haters was that "Aunt Dan and Lemon" would ride a topical wave and fade away. Aunt Dan's love affair with Henry Kissinger and Lemon's respectful fascination for the Nazis were provocatively unpalatable themes that would dissipate with time, like the contemporaneous Iran Contra affair.

It hasn't happened, and the current revival at Orange Coast College partly reveals why.

But only partly.

In place of the old issues that circulated around the play (Kissinger, Vietnam), a new one springs up: Can a revival really do justice to a play when it softens and censors some of that play's sensitive elements?

Shawn must be happy that colleges are daring to do a work that contains monologues on Nazi "courageousness" and depicts sadomasochism and oral copulation. But can he be happy that a college version, such as director Rick Golson's at OCC, contains the first element while deleting the second and third?

Bet the mortgage that he's not, and it may be that Shawn's play is best not done by groups that simply can't stage it as written. OCC regulations, among other things, prohibit stage nudity, let alone simulated sex, which pretty much ruins the essence of one of the play's crucial scenes.

Before Aunt Dan became an Oxford teacher and young Lemon's influential guidepost, you see, she led a decadent London life. Shawn's brilliant dramatic strategy is to have Lemon recall Dan's London tales in the manner of a girl's storybook flashback, and then to reveal the evil underneath.

*

He's also tracing the devolution of the postwar generations: From Dan and her friend's blurring of sex, money and the worth of human life; to Lemon's parents wasting away; to Lemon's own emotionally starved inwardness. Shawn's 20th Century ends with a young woman staring at the walls and wasting away.

Thus, the amoral sex and Dan's amoral politics go fist in glove. One may as well trim some of Shawn's more "offensive" dialogue, such as Lemon comparing Jews with cockroaches, as trim the sex. In this, one of the '80s most blood-curdling plays, the two are carefully intertwined.

All of which reflects sadly on a county so deprived of professional companies and, especially, courageous ones, that the college drama departments naturally sense a big duty to deliver challenging theater. (Even South Coast Repertory's 1988 staging softened the sex.) OCC's is one case where the sense of duty just can't be fulfilled.

So, unable to break school rules, unable to go off-campus and do it the way the author intended, Golson and company do the next best thing: convey Shawn's ideas with intense seriousness.

*

Our image of Aunt Dan has been dominated by such physically unique actors as Linda Hunt and Kathy Bates; here, Rita Renee's Aunt Dan has an everyday naturalness and beauty that brings more levels to Shawn's portrait of evil's banality. She is no odd duck, as Hunt suggested, but an outwardly attractive woman who's talked herself into believing that Kissinger is an angelic servant--if not of the good, of the necessary.

Heather deMichele's Lemon is too healthy-looking for someone living on exotic waters, though she conveys the sharp but myopic intelligence of someone who has lived alone with herself far too long.

Terri Mowrey also doesn't conform to the physical description of the sexual siren Mindy, and she could project more sexual heat to make up for this production's lack of physicality.

As Lemon's mother and father, Anna Fitzwater is as vocally and emotionally rich as Dave Barton is dull. As some of Dan's sexual pals, Van Messerschmitt and Kristina Leach waste no time in telling us where their characters stand (or don't, depending on the hour of night).

Two final notes: As an exercise in British dialect, this is a very successful one for the students. As an exercise in semi-arena staging, it's less so, both because the audience is never really implicated in the play's action and because the cues for Brock Cilley's good lights are sometimes muffed.

* "Aunt Dan and Lemon," Orange Coast College, Drama Lab Studio, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $5. (714) 432-5932. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Heather deMichele: Lemon

Rita Renee: Aunt Dan

Anna Fitzwater: Mother

Dave Barton: Father

An Orange Coast College production of Wallace Shawn's play. Directed by Rick Golson. Set: Breeze Erwin. Lights: Brock Cilley.

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