The most recent outing at the theatre was To Do Productions' staging of Lanford Wilson's Sympathetic Magic, which won a 1996-97 Obie award. Magic gives us a San Francisco cauldron boiling with emotional and philosophical complications.
The philosophical conundrums, for the most part, center on the mystery of the universe. We get an oppositional tension between science and faith as a way of confronting that mystery. But neither the religious nor the astrophysical impulses come through free and clear. Both are clouded by that equally mysterious universe that lies within.
The scientific approach collides with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. This devilish paradox states that one cannot know both the location and the speed of a subatomic particle at the same time. One can know how fast a particle is traveling or one can know where a particle is. Either one or the other. More to the point, the very act of observation changes the thing observed. Subjectivity is mankind's inescapable trap.
The play's religious advocate admits the same dilemma from his perspective when he says "blind" faith is redundant. All faith is blind.
But, let's back up a bit. Magic starts with a lecture by an astronomer named Ian (Steve Kubick). His subject is the universe. Why? Because there's nothing else. We don't pick up much beyond Ian's wry appreciation of the wonder of it all -- as when he jokes about "the known universe." He clearly finds "known" presumptuous. He prefers "the visible universe."
From there, the play hurries on in cinematic fashion through short scenes separated by blackouts. Lights come up inside an Episcopalian church, where Ian's wife Barbara (Lisa Davis) is talking to her stepbrother Don (T.J. Toups), the church's pastor. Barbara is a sculptor. She laments the opening of her most recent show, afraid she will once again get panned by the critics. Her sculptures are provocative. They look like "copulating goats in pain."
Such matters do not excessively trouble the pastor, however. He's a pretty racy clergyman. He's having an affair with (or, at some point, had an affair with) the flagrantly campy choirmaster Pauly (Lewis Routh). Probably they were once an item but no longer are -- Pauly often complains about not having any sex. Pauly's choir, by the way, is composed of people with AIDS.
The next complication sets in when Barbara announces to her astronomer/hubby Ian that she's pregnant and, for good measure, that she's already been to the clinic. She's arranging to have an abortion.
Eventually we meet Barbara and stepbrother Don's mother (Tony Fennelly). She seems the epicenter of all this provocation and bravado. Mom took Don (who was her favorite child) with her to Africa, where she dabbled in shamanism and amateur anthropology and shacked up with a doctor who unfortunately was infected with AIDS. Now that she's back in the States, Mom is continuing her anthropological studies with street gangs in the ghetto. She's one wild old gal and she speaks her mind. Giving men a grudging acknowledgment, she says, "no amount of masturbation will ever replace them." Alas, she also is a candidate for the all-AIDS choir.
Now, you take the witches' brew I've outlined and stir it up and you've got more than enough turmoil to go around. Plus, I'm leaving out several juicy subplots having to do with shady academic politics stirred up by the head of the science department (Carlos Gonzlez) and a blossoming romance between Ian's partner (Federick Mead) and an attractive church member (El Tarha Ibrahim).
All in all, Sympathetic Magic was a worthwhile, ambitious project. Don McDonald directed and designed the lights as well. His lighting and simplified staging helped keep this complex tale from bogging down. The church, for instance, was often no more than a roseate window lit from behind, and the brief scenes generally segued from one to the other smoothly.
The cast was game and did a commendable job, though almost any production would be doomed to unevenness by the extraordinary demands of the script. Nonetheless -- with this New Orleans premiere -- To Do gave us a welcome opportunity to see one of the less frequently performed plays of a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.