LOS ANGELES — An article by Louis Sahagun in the Los Angeles Times, about the Genesis solar project in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California, caught the eye of local playwright Stephen Sachs. The future of a massive investment in renewable energy was suddenly threatened by the discovery of an ancient Native American burial ground. Which of our sacred promises takes preference? The evolution of new green technology to combat global warming, or respect for our ancestral forebears – and their present-day descendants – on the land?
The new play Dream Catcher, now enjoying its world premiere production at the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, explores this theme in a taut, uninterrupted 80 minutes of high drama between two passionate characters.
Roy (Brian Tichnell) is a solar engineer from Massachusetts working with a dream team of superstars in the field in the big breakthrough project of his career, and is he ever committed to saving the Earth and all creation! While on assignment far from home, he checks out the local action at the Rusty Nail. Fate steps in in the form of Opal (Elizabeth Frances), a beautiful young Mojave woman, who may be looking for a way out of and off “the rez,” where she is more or less stranded with few meaningful familial or social attachments.
We meet them at the three-month plateau of a steamy affair.
Sachs is a proven socially conscious writer, whose recent play Citizen: An American Lyric looked at racial prejudice. He is also co-artistic director of the Fountain, which specializes in plays about tough moral problems and decisions (it is frequently the venue for U.S. premieres of the latest plays by the South African playwright Athol Fugard).
Marinating his timely environmental and tribal concerns in the juicy sauce of Roy and Opal’s graphic animal attraction, Sachs gives human form to these high-flown concepts. A play that might otherwise have been a shouting match between two competing ideologies, each with its own powerful set of justifications, becomes a case study of the principle of “the personal is political.”
Opal has been visited in a nighttime dream by the spirit of her revered clairvoyant grandmother. Led by the mystical spirits summoned in the vision, she discovers the historical remains of her people and is forced to question if the solar project is really the positive, unalloyed good it’s touted to be. Especially when it turns out that nests of indigenous foxes have been found mysteriously killed off from the possible effects of the new technology introduced into the environment, not to mention thousands of dead crows disoriented by the glare of the panels. Opal’s sense of self-worth grows as she becomes a leader of her people.
There’s an Ibsen-like cast to Sachs’ theme: modernity and the contradiction between two values of seemingly equivalent valence, plus the emergence of today’s woman from under the male thumb. He gets lyrical in places, when Opal and Roy contrast their received wisdom about the origin of the world – hers from the tribal legends of the Mojave, his from the annals of geological science. Both contain healthy doses of magical realism. Do all narratives of reality have equivalent status? This is one of the great questions we deal with today in social conflict. And can we reconcile the truths – the stories, the certainties – that different people, with often divergent interests, bring to the table?
The dream catcher is a native tool in circular form made into a web of thread and other natural materials that you hang above your bed. It “catches” the good parts of your dreams, and allows the bad parts to sift through. What happens if my good is your bad?
The two actors are beyond wonderful portraying these characters in conflict. No one’s attention will wander from their non-stop back-and-forth challenges.
And yet I wonder if this play has reached its finished form. It did not appear that Sachs’ two characters end up in significantly different places from where they started. Neither is much of what we would call a “listener.” Transformation is the norm in theatre, and although not universal, it is expected in the genre of storytelling that we are given here. Opal’s emergence has effectively already taken place by the time the play opens, so there is little left to unfold. And if we’re to struggle creatively with the two potent and opposing worldviews, it would help if their two proponents were of equal moral stature: One of them is clearly lacking.
Perhaps the problem lies in part with the director (Cameron Watson), who starts off the action with several minutes’ worth of breathless huffing and puffing, and neither the actors nor the audience get very much respite from that hyperkinetic tone until the end. In that sense the play is a thriller, with one shocker following another in such quick succession that we barely get a chance to assimilate each new situation before we’re hit with another.
The theater-in-the-round setting works well: We feel the heat, the dust, the wind, the sounds of the desert. In this hothouse we find ourselves bouncing in sympathy between two arguments of consummate worth. Whole worlds, competing moral imperatives, even cosmic understandings, are in play here. Sachs aims to capture theatrically one of the great dilemmas of our time, and nearly nails it.
Dream Catcher plays Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm and 7 pm, and Mondays at 8 pm, through March 21. (Every Monday night is pay-what-you-can.) The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90029 (at Normandie). For further information: (323) 663-1525, or click here.
Photo: Elizabeth Frances and Brian Tichnell, The Fountain Theatre. | Ed Krieger