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By John Quinn
The contrast could not be sharper. Outside, near-zero temps and howling winds reduced traffic on I-94 to a bumper-to-bumper crawl. Inside, scenic designer Vincent Mountain and lighting designer Noele Stollmack bring a stunning representation of the primordial redwood forests of northern California to the stage of The Purple Rose Theatre. Massive tree trunks, lush undergrowth and mysterious shadows are the setting for Lanford Wilson’s drama “Redwood Curtain.”
New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley observed that Wilson’s works “harked back to the era of more sentimental plays – of portraits of losers on the margins of life.” Few characters illustrate that sensibility better than Lyman; suffering from barely understood posttraumatic stress disorder, he’s joined the thousands of Vietnam vets living in the vast forest wilderness of Humbolt County. Like the Iron Curtain divided Europe and the Bamboo Curtain divided Asia, the Redwood Curtain divides America from the victims of its embarrassing past.
His routine is disturbed by Geri Riordan, a precocious teen who follows Lyman in the woods. She’s a gifted pianist as well as possessor of supernatural gifts that seem only natural to her mother’s heritage. Geri is Eurasian, the progeny of a Saigon shopkeeper and an American G.I. Armed with only a sketchy description and a name, she searches the forest each summer for the father who brought her to America and allowed the Riordans to adopt her.
Time for her search is running out. She spends the summers with her Uncle Barney and Aunt Geneva, who is heiress to 100,000 acres of prime timber, now sold in a hostile takeover. Is the gruff, menacing Lyman her father, or is desperation clouding her judgment?
In his program note, PRTC artistic director Guy Sanville remarks on Lanford Wilson’s “nose for anything untruthful or contrived.” Even though “Redwood Curtain” is shot full of fantasy and coincidence, the power in its characters makes it utterly authentic.
Resident artist Stephanie Buck is making her Purple Rose directorial debut with “Redwood Curtain” and draws compelling performances from her cast. Alex Leydenfrost gives a restrained, introspective portrayal of Lyman. Beyond the halting gestures and the absolutely flat line delivery, the state of Lyman’s soul is read through Leydenfrost’s lightless, hopeless eyes – an experience that venues less cozy than the Purple Rose can only envy.
Returning to Chelsea after her appearance last season in “White Buffalo,” Rainbow Dickerson plays Geri as a fresh, sassy 18-year-old who is wise beyond her years. Granted the kid is self-assured, but it is puzzling that her confrontation with the really frightening woodsman is marked with such bravado. Her rather complacent acceptance of an assault and robbery seems overly stoic.
Geneva is a study in contrasts. She is witty and outgoing, yet harbors the grief of abandoning her heritage for the sunny waters of Key Biscayne. Michelle Mountain makes the most of the tension implicit in the character’s torn emotions.
The great paradox of theater is how an artificial phenomenon can lead us to such profound truths. That paradox is resolved in the works of playwrights like Lanford Wilson, whose fundamental honesty guides our way.
The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday-Sunday through March 15. 1 hour, 20 minutes; no intermission. $18.50-42. 734-433-7673. http://www.purplerosetheatre.org