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'Ganesh': Journey and Destination


SOLANA BEACH — Travel may not allow you to leave your troubles behind, but at times it can put them in a potentially healing perspective.

That's the idea behind Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh," now in an eloquent production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre, a year after the 1993 play had its West Coast debut in Santa Barbara.

For three decades, McNally has carved out a niche writing about common men and women yearning for connection. "Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune" told the tale of two very ordinary people--a short-order cook and a waitress--who let down their defenses just long enough to point them in the direction of love.

"A Perfect Ganesh" takes on the dramatically unlikely yarn of two middle-aged women, Margaret (Pat DiMeo) and Katharine (Sandra Ellis-Troy), who travel to India together.

Each has her secret sorrow involving a child who died. And while there is no cure for that kind of sorrow, a series of encounters, blended with soul-searching soliloquies, remembrances and imagined conversations, help them to better comprehend and absorb what has happened.

A Hindu god, Ganesha, wittily played by Azfar Najmi, serves as narrator and in a variety of parts from Japanese tourist to Indian maid, all in an elephant-shaped mask and elaborately jeweled costume that, humorously, doesn't seem to attract anyone's attention. The implication seems to be that miracles are always among us, whether we are too blind to see them.

Dan Gruber boldly and forcefully takes on many roles as Man, from Katharine's gay son, Walter, who died in an ugly gay-bashing incident, and her husband to a flight attendant and a grown-up version of Margaret's son, who was killed at age 4 in a car accident.

The women, in contrast, are always themselves, but because this is a journey play, they make as many internal changes as the male actors make external ones.

DiMeo's Margaret begins as an insufferably difficult, rigid woman with only token political correctness--the kind of woman who will jump on her friend for saying "Jap" instead of "Japanese" but who adheres to a more rigid caste system in her heart. Gradually she softens and, through a series of partial confessions, becomes more able to receive and give love.

Ellis-Troy's Katharine seems at the beginning to be more of the New Age free spirit, complete with self-actualization tapes in which she wills herself to be happy. But what she really needs is to come to terms with her prejudices, her guilt over her inability to accept her son's homosexuality and her hatred toward those who killed him before she can find peace.

Sean Murray's direction deftly puts anger, sensitivity, sorrow and compassion into play. This is a complicated work that calls for the guts to juggle the funny, the ugly and the spiritual.

It also takes wisdom to not wrap it up neatly. That's one area where the production could improve--by dropping some of the glowing, compassionate understanding that radiates at the conclusion.

Because, true to the journey, these women still have a way to go at the end of the play, more shocks to absorb, more revelations to share. And that unfinished feeling, unsettling as it may be, should be part of the message.

Despite what they have learned on their passage to India, these women, like the rest of us imperfect souls on Earth, are still on the spiritual road even when they are physically home.

Marty Burnett's simple, heavenly white sets put an ethereal perspective on the human foibles. Judy Watson's costumes are an apt, contemporaneously wry commentary of this world pitted against the eternal one.

And K.B. Merrill's marvelous elephant mask for Ganesha, as well as the puppet designs for a show-within-the-show, enhance the mystical, otherworldly feeling of this high-quality production.

* "A Perfect Ganesh," North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 8. $14-$16. (619) 481-1055. Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes.


"A Perfect Ganesh,"

Azfar Najmi: Ganesha

Dan Gruber: Man

Pat DiMeo: Margaret Civil

Sandra Ellis-Troy: Katharine Brynne

A North Coast Repertory Theatre production of a drama by Terrence McNally. Directed by Sean Murray. Sets: Marty Burnett. Lights: Christopher Rynne. Costumes: Judy Watson. Puppet/mask design: K.B. Merrill. Sound: Philip Beaumont. Stage manager: Richard Anthony.

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