Capturing the raw and vibrant energy of city street life, particularly of those living on the margins, is no easy task. Playwright Lanford Wilson sought to do that in Balm in Gilead, which he wrote in 1965. At a skeezy all-night diner in New York, a cast of 24 eccentric drug addicts, prostitutes, pimps, waitresses and bums swirl about in a kaleidoscope of vulgar jokes, crass hustles, quick scores, ditched checks, jealous spats and exposed hurt and need. It’s a challenging play to mount, but under the inspired direction of Mark Routhier the combined casts of the NOLA Project, Cripple Creek Theatre and others turned in a riveting show at NOCCA.
Wilson constructed a difficult piece, frequently calling for multiple competing conversations and conflicts with more than 15 actors on stage. And that consequently makes singled out conversations bear a lot of weight while not making it seem like two different shows competing for attention. Routhier does an excellent job directing traffic, particularly in the opening 30 minutes, when the action is the most frenetic. In just brief lines and gestures, many players brilliantly established themselves and the entertainingly hectic setting: Emilie Whelan as a brassy prostitute, Ian Hoch as a desperate addict begging on the street, A.J. Allegra as a wisecracking junkie, Alex Martinez Wallace as a preening hustler, James Bartelle as a hustler, Andy Vaught as a serially high neighborhood character, who occasionally addresses the audience directly. There also are many other strong bit parts rounding out the cast of transvestites, thieves and deadbeats. Cecile Casey Covert and Katie Gefland’s costumes are wonderfully varied and hilariously garish where necessary.
Into the mix walks Darlene (Kristin Witterschein), who’s recently arrived in New York from Chicago. Not having much money, she’s taken a room in the neighborhood. At the diner counter she meets Joe (James Yeargain), a heroin user who’s dug himself into a hole with a dealer. Darlene is naïve, but they still hit it off and share common feelings of working their way out of tough spots. In a much longer conversation with Ann, the prostitute (Whelan), Darlene offers a long monologue about marriage plans that never materialized and the humorous ordeal of getting a marriage license reveals that even much more conventional lives are fraught with life altering decisions, mistakes and disappointment.
It’s not a completely unconventional narrative, but much of the show is carried by the tone and tempo of flighty conversations, brief and sharp exchanges and the glimpses of desire, hurt and humor highlighted in bigger and smaller moments. The cast provides a rush of memorably colorful characters and personalities. There are a couple of uneven moments, like when there is suddenly a narrator addressing the audience, and final flourishes when characters conspicuously repeat lines from earlier in the piece. But ultimately, the cast succeeds in making Balm in Gilead an entertaining and emotionally compelling piece about the human sides of people in tough straits.
Through Sept. 30
Balm in Gilead
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday
NOCCA, Nim's Black Box Theatre, 2800 Chartres St.