“The road of life is a long, long road, when you walk alone….” – Dorsey Burnette from “Hey, Little One”
On the surface, playwright Robert Schenkkan’s selection of the title “By the Waters of Babylon” seems a strange one to those who know the 1937 post-apocalyptic story by Stephen Vincent Benet of the same name. However, in some common translations of Psalm 137 from the Bible, the poem begins “by the rivers of Babylon,” but in the Septuagint, the primary Greek translation of the Old Testament, waters appears rather than rivers. The central theme of the psalm concerns the Jewish people in exile, yearning freedom and the return to their homeland.
The play is an acting duet. Catherine is an older woman – the widow of a university professor who died of a heart attack. Her long-time neighbors in a fashionable area of Austin consider her a slut and gossip about her for reasons unknown, believing that she is somehow responsible for her husband’s death. She is an alien in her own community. Arturo is a gardener who Catherine has summoned to clear away her unkempt yard. He is a literal exile, a negrito having escaped from Cuba and for undisclosed reasons moved on from Miami to Texas.
Neva Hutchinson is delightful as Catherine. She exudes smooth graciousness, speaking in an effusive Texas patter sprinkled with colorful verbiage and reflecting a solid grounding in reason and an underlying intellect. She is lonely and engages Arturo in polite conversation when he commences working for her.
Michael Angelo Gonzalez is Arturo. He takes his character through layers of emotion and involvement, at first informed by his subservient relationship to his employer, but later emboldened by Catherine’s increasing familiarity. Although Gonzalez’s portrayal in early sequences appears sexually ambiguous, he becomes more assertive in time and responds to Catherine’s overtures. While Hutchinson’s role calls predominately for modulation, Gonzalez answers the call for more variable expressiveness.
Playwright Schenkkan is noted for his Pulitzer Prize winning “Kentucky Cycle,” which is grand in its sweep and his Tony winning “All the Way,” which examines the corridors of power, specifically the machinations of LBJ in passing the Civil Rights Bill. This is a small piece that deals with the problems and emotions of inconsequential people. But Shenkkan imbues them with souls and reminds us that we are all important.
Revelation comes largely through back story as Catherine and Arturo each find the other sympatico in a way that induces them build bonds through discussing their past tragedies. Her constancy and stoicism is shown in discussing abuses she suffered from her husband. Arturo’s excitability and conflictedness are displayed in his criticisms of Cuba for its failed revolution and yet of the United States for comparing unfavorably to Cuba in education and medical care. The symbolic representation of water in the title as the source of life is found in Arturo’s harrowing open seas passage to Florida in a small boat and his wanting to take Catherine to the ocean. Ultimately, the two people of divergent ethnicity, age, and gender will share new experiences and direction.
Bruce Bierman directs and provides good production values for a bare bones production. The sets are simple and appropriate, dominated by dried bushes and vines. Light and the sounds of Texas thunder add depth to the effect.
“By the Waters of Babylon” by Robert Shenkkan plays at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, San Francisco, through October 15, 2016.