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'Love-Lies-Bleeding': Dying to Make a Point

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In "Love-Lies-Bleeding," Don DeLillo's austere consideration of how enlightened humankind tries to assert primacy over forces beyond its control, an elderly painter sits blankly in a wheelchair, hooked up to intravenous tubes. Around him hover wives, ex-wives and progeny, who gather in his desert cottage to decide whether they should end his life.

If the play seems at first to foster a straightforward debate, along the lines of "Euthanasia: Right or Wrong?," the more profound level of dialogue DeLillo is seeking eventually asserts itself. Ultimately it is more complex impulses that he is throwing open to discussion -- the idea that the evolution of tools and knowledge has contributed to the impression that society can exercise sovereignty over everything, be it the natural world or even death.

That contemplative springboard gives way to a thoughtful if rather clinical evening in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, where Chicago's highly regarded Steppenwolf Theatre is in residence this week. The production is the first fruit of the center's Fund for New American Plays, which previously awarded small grants each year to a group of theaters and playwrights across the country. Under the program's revised guidelines, a $75,000 gift goes to one regional theater, with the proviso that it bring the play to Washington.

The change is all for the good, a step in the direction of making the nation's largest performing arts center a more visible platform for new American drama. Sponsorship of original plays is perhaps the most taxing and stressful work a theater can undertake, and the notion of the Kennedy Center extending itself even a little bit in this regard is tacit encouragement to such local companies as Woolly Mammoth and Signature Theatre, which more intrepidly seek out the next important dramatists and composers.

Steppenwolf, long a source of Chicago's theatrical energy and a jumping-off point for John Malkovich, Joan Allen and Gary Sinise, is an apt collaborator for the fund's relaunch. DeLillo, a successful novelist ("Libra") who occasionally writes a play ("The Day Room"), might have name-brand appeal. But his work for the theater tends to lack shape and a certain dynamism. In his singular turns of phrase, a sharp social commentator can be heard. Yet in his flatly composed scenes, you also hear a voice that might just as well be amplified in a reading at Barnes & Noble.

Amy Morton, a longtime Steppenwolf stalwart, exacerbates the stiffness of "Love-Lives-Bleeding" in a staging that is more reverent than revelatory. With the exception of the seasoned stage and film actor John Heard, who plays the artist in flashback and gives a rounded account of a man of conflicted desires and flagging stamina, the cast approaches DeLillo's language as if the phraseology is his and not theirs.

Granted, actors should expect difficulty in making some of the hyper-literate speeches their own. You can only empathize with Martha Lavey, who, playing the comatose man's brittle ex-wife Toinette, must puzzle out observations on the order of the statement that "Mr. Ed was a horse" is structurally like a line from "The Iliad."

Toinette, a minor New York intellectual, has come to the homestead of the stricken Alex -- the program notes that the in extremis version of the character is played by Larry Kucharik -- along with the impassive Sean (Louis Cancelmi), Alex's son from another marriage. Over the mournful resistance of Alex's fourth (and final) wife, Lia (Penelope Walker), Toinette and Sean conclude that because he lacks apparent brain function, the essential Alex has ceased to exist.

In a sequence of events alternating among the present, recent past and near-future, "Love-Lies-Bleeding" attempts to add poignancy to Alex's condition with the suggestion of potential unfulfilled and a vision yet to be realized. The uncertainty of how much cognition he has now seems a reflection of the ambiguity that has dogged his talent and his ability to care for others throughout his life. There's a kind of cruel twist in the fact that with his diminished capacity, his fate is in the hands of a son -- played in an oddly robotic way by Cancelmi -- who has expressed deep ambivalence about the old man.

The play's title is derived from the name of an exotic native plant, one of the many types of which Alex is said to have been fond. In a work this self-conscious, it comes as no accident that the playwright gives him a condition drenched in irony: He is in what the doctors call a "persistent vegetative state."

On a set by Loy Arcenas conjuring a cabin in the scrub -- its best feature is a backdrop suddenly set ablaze in J.R. Lederle's lighting -- Alex and Toinette are seen in flashback, talking about Alex's most inspired project, an effort to carve a room in a mountain. The question that bedevils him is whether to add more man-made texture to his design, to paint what he's created. The parallel to the final riddle Alex's illness provokes is made fairly explicit.

The scene between Heard's Alex and Lavey's Toinette carries far more dramatic weight than any of the more laborious present-day scenes, in which the characters do end up posing a lot of those rhetorical, whose-life-is-it-anyway? sort of questions.

We, of course, know how that question will be answered. Pursuing the playwright's broader line of inquiry about contemporary life, however, could have been rooted more potently in the land of the living.

Love-Lies-Bleeding, by Don DeLillo. Directed by Amy Morton. Costumes, Nan Cibula-Jenkins; sound, Josh Schmidt. About 90 minutes. Through Sunday at Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org/ .

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