So long, complex and unique was the life of Mohandas Gandhi, India's Mahatma, that efforts to capture him on film or stage have failed, failed, at least, to Westerners. In "Gandhiji," introduced at Back Alley Studio for Friday through Sunday performances, Rose Leiman Goldemberg tries a new tack from a Western viewpoint and with considerable effectiveness.
She imagines Gandhi condemned to return to life to reenact his private, personal life with a band of actors in the roles of his intimate family. Using documented facts of Gandhi's schooling, marriage, trips to England, and South Africa and the teachings he employed on his return to India, Goldmberg concentrates on the cost of his mission to these intimates. She has observed that "the wives of great men rarely smile" and for parents, brother, wife and sons she shows that the "Great Soul" was a burden which crushed their individualitites.
In its circular construction of flashbacks repeated for purposeful effects, the play begins and ends with the shot of a Hindu who blamed Gandhi for the partition of India. Faces of Western leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers, flash on to screens with faces of public mourners familiar from the fall of France and that 1948 crowd in Delhi to the present.
Goldemberg does not pretend that this is other than a Western view of an Eastern idol's private life, and one must bring to it rather more than the outlines she gives as to why Gandhi became "The Mahatma."
Philosophically, the tack is perhaps more simplistic than warranted for the roles of these parents, husbands, wives and children are rooted in a culture alien from ours. It undoubtedly is true that his intimates bore Gandhi's strictures at heavy personal cost but to transfer our European cultural heritage and today's American accent on sex is to impose, not elucidate. For all that, the point of the personal costs of great men's lives is well, sometimes stirringly made.
The staging by Kim Peter Kovac in the extremely modest quarters at 617 F St. NW is resourceful and impressive as is the performance of Gandhi by James E. Knight. Such details as Christel Stevens' choreography and the simple costumes of Pat Presley for the supporting company of seven are competently considered. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays, Satrudays and Sundays, with reservations at 638-2181.