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Stage Light

Needing a Dose of Emotion

May 13, 1999|ROBERT KOEHLER

What works powerfully on the sickbed can be nearly fatal on stage, and John Cameron's drama, "The Only Song I Know," at the Sweet Lies Theatre in North Hollywood, is the latest victim of the syndrome.

Cameron wastes no time naming heroine Margaret Campbell's disease--Alzheimer's. Bedridden and in need of round-the-clock care, Margaret (Shannon Welles) veers between barking and cussing at nurse Mary (Wilda Turner) and losing herself in her memories.

"The Only Song I Know" is a literal theatricalization of Alzheimer's: first the naming and then the entrance of Margaret's younger selves (both named Rachel, Margaret's birth name before she was forced to change it) as her memories take full flight.

There are immediate and visible problems with this approach, which director Ernest Figueroa tends to underline with his fairly unstylish hand.

Welles, for one, is much too agile and strong for a character confined to her bed. The ham-fisted way in which the Rachels (Megan Oberle as the teen, Stephanie Rubin as the adult) enter and take over the dialogue and action is anything but smooth, intriguing or dreamlike.

To accommodate a streamlined narrative approach, Cameron ignores Alzheimer's alarmingly fragmented nature, especially the way it distorts its victims' memories, by laying out Margaret's disturbing and often wrenching memories as if they were stories told around a campfire.

Cameron could learn something from Samuel Beckett, the English-speaking theater's 20th century master who understood and conveyed in stage terms the true nature of Alzheimer's years before it had a name. Compare Cameron's all-too-schematic manner with Beckett's "Happy Days" or "Eh, Joe," which wisely do away with any literalism and plunge the listener far inside the subconsciousness of elderly folks lost in the unmappable web of their own memories.

In Cameron's play, the only powerful moments are when Oberle's Rachel is nearly raped by beefcake beau Karl (Franco Vega) and later when Rubin's Rachel is slapped and punched by bitter husband Tommy (Stephan Brewster). The actors deliver on these extremely disturbing scenes--episodes that led Rachel to run away and change her name. But they cannot rescue what is ultimately an emotionally underwhelming experience.

Like the other production by the Dillon Street Players running concurrently, "Lost Causes and Impossible Loyalties," production values are kept to a low-tech workshop level and the casting is uneven, ranging from the memorable Oberle to stiff scenes involving Welles and Scott Crawford as Margaret's coldhearted son.

Given the play's limitations, Welles' assignment is probably impossible, though her performance leans toward the actorish. (It would be interesting, however, to see Welles' approach to "Happy Days.") Turner is stuck playing an awkwardly written, burned-out nurse who should get into another line of work. But as an actor, she fully plays the hand she's dealt.

"The Only Song I Know," Sweet Lies Theatre at the Bitter Truth Theatre Complex, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4:30 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 and 7:30 p.m. Ends May 23. (818) 755-7900. $15. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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