Axial's 'Radiance' brings a glow of a well-told tale
The Journal News
by: John P. McCarthy
Hopi kachina dolls, radioactive waste, the Vietnam War and substance abuse all factor into "Radiance," the fertile new play by Howard Meyer being staged by Axial Theatre in Pleasantville.
Meyer, Axial's co-founder, sets his ambitious treatment of personal and communal dissolution in New Mexico. It shines thanks to spectacular performances by a four-person cast directed by Christopher Grabowski.
Sofia Lauwers portrays Lindsay Kountze, daughter of Billy (Christopher McCann), a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lindsay -- who tolerates her moniker by identifying with 1970s TV heroine "The Bionic Woman" played by Lindsay Wagner -- opens both acts with monologues delivered from prison after the main events transpire.The bulk of the play takes place in the living room of the house she shares with her father. Lindsay's mother took off years ago, after she and Lindsay were in an accident of some kind. Soon to graduate, Lindsay is interning with an environmental organization, much to Billy's chagrin.
For the past month, Billy's best friend Paddy Poweahla (Gilbert Cruz) has been crashing on their couch. Born into the Hopi tribe, Paddy is a recovering addict. He and Billy were Marines in Vietnam together and have worked for decades at Los Alamos, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Paddy believes that in order to clean up he must reconnect with the Hopi culture he rejected as a young man. Billy mocks Paddy's quest for sobriety and his identification with his Native American heritage. But despite judging him so harshly, Billy secures a promotion for Paddy at the lab.
And Billy, who constantly frets over Lindsay's well-being, has his own demons. He shoots heroin and quaffs booze on the sly. He's also a diabetic, and his self-destructive attitude toward that disease brings out Lindsay's care-giving instincts.
Friction between father and daughter and between the two old pals sparks toxic behavior. The possibility that Los Alamos is contaminating nearby Indian reservations with nuclear run-off thickens the narrative stew.
As compelling as the play's environmental and other social themes may be, the poisonous interpersonal relationships are more captivating -- especially because the chemistry between the actors is so palpable. As Billy, Obie Award-winner McCann is transfixing; he limns a scathing, cynical man whose good intentions have been rotted by rage and regret. Cruz's Paddy is a deeply sympathetic figure, sincere in his attempt to atone and evolve. Charged with holding the play together and negotiating a role fraught with technical challenges, Lauwers is superb. Rachel Ann Jones, who appears as Lindsay's mother, rounds out the acting quartet. She functions as an ethereal, somewhat loopy balm -- funny, magical and hopeful.
By orchestrating such outstanding performances, director Grabowski helps transform a shape-shifting play into a concentrated emotional experience.
Inside the Community House at Pleasantville's St. John's Episcopal Church, set designer Zhanna Gurvich conjures a strong sense of place using shabby Southwestern decor on a narrow thrust stage ringed by cinder blocks.
Describing "Radiance" as a study in codependence, or the pathology of enabling behavior, makes it sound mundane and depressing. Yet in a theatrical space populated by talented artists, noxious material emanating from stricken souls can be downright salubrious.