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THEATER REVIEW : 'Akela': Parable of Lost Innocence in a Toxic World

June 21, 1995|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An unmarried female teacher takes a group of Cub Scouts camping. She has a few beers, the kids have cocoa, then all drift peacefully to sleep under the starlit Colorado sky. When the woman awakens the next morning, she discovers, to her horror, that her young charges have expired soundlessly.

Set in the mid-1980s, Ron McLarty's solidly crafted drama "Akela," presented by the Road Theatre Company at the new, city-owned Lankershim Arts Center, is especially timely, with budget cuts now threatening to dismantle certain environmental programs.

For although the teacher, Mary (Taylor Gilbert) may have taken her Cubs deep into God's country, it's no act of God that causes their deaths. It's an act of man, pure and simple, an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy. The waters of the creek near the scouts' camping site were befouled by a lethal load of toxic waste, dumped from a passing chemical truck. The water in their cocoa did them in.

The incident is a horrible accident, or so insists Isles (Michael Dempsey), who was Mary's high school sweetheart and is also the man who was driving the fatal chemical truck. When Isles' wily lawyer clears him of all charges, the inhabitants of the small Colorado town turn instead on Mary, whose few beers on that night, not to mention her liberal views, make her a convenient scapegoat.

Both actors in McLarty's two-character play assume various personas, including their own youthful selves 20 years earlier, at the peak of adolescent romance. Akela is the Cub Scouts' word for leader, a name they bestow upon Mary as a mark of affection and respect. But the mature Mary, like her girlhood self, is still more a dreamer than a leader, and Gilbert effectively taps into the shock and grief of a woman whose fondest hopes have been shattered by tragedy.

Dempsey is invariably poignant as Isles, whose crushing sense of his own culpability bleeds through his determined denial. Dempsey's job is particularly challenging, for in addition to adult characters, he also portrays the Cub Scouts on that final, fateful night. Although Dempsey doesn't make much distinction between these children, he nonetheless captures the wide-eyed sense of childhood's unexplored possibilities that makes their fates all the more terrible.

David Flad's smooth lighting facilitates the actors' frequent character shifts. However, David Gianopoulos' forceful, broad direction, although typically effective, occasionally steers the performers dangerously close to caricature.

In addition to being a gripping drama, McLarty's play is also a chilling parable about the dreadful costs of an increasingly toxic world, especially one where the emphasis on profits and expediency outstrips considerations of decency and humanity.

* "Akela," Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends July 23. $15. (818) 761-8838. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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