Bertolt Brecht placed "The Good Person of Setzuan" in an imaginary Chinese city, but Arena Stage has set it on an abandoned lot.
The four-sided playing area has been paved over with concrete. Weeds are poking up through the cracks and a slow drizzle that will come and go throughout the evening has begun to accumulate in gray puddles. A half-hearted sanitation worker -- or maybe the wind -- has deposited a few trash cans on the desolate premises.
Brecht's play is a once-upon-a-time fable about the gods' beleaguered search for that single individual living a life "worthy of a human being"; Arena sees it very much as a 20th-century urban parable. Forget the exotic, inscrutable Orient. This is really our own back yard. One of the characters may be a poor water seller (Richard Bauer), but if you took away his yoke and buckets, he'd be right at home in Lafayette Park. To shelter himself from the storm, he huddles under a torn plastic dropcloth. Sometimes he wears cardboard placards enumerating his multiple complaints with a callous world that lets its people go hungry.
The approach is distinctively gritty and there is rude and brutish life in this production, which opened Arena's 35th season last night on a note of steely ambition. During the scene changes, the cast members scurry back and forth in the semidarkness, giving the impression that the stage rests on a human anthill. When the lights come up, it is on a scrabbling, grasping society, where simple goodness doesn't stand a chance. Arena has etched that world almost exclusively in tones of black, brown, gray and soiled white -- saving the ruby red for the upholstery in the office of a thriving cigarette factory.
Arresting as this production is, however, it has been purchased at a definite price. Those who find Brecht heavy going will have little reason to change their minds. The staging, a collaborative effort on the part of the cast members and director Garland Wright, tends to turn its back on the playfulness of the tale and underscore its seriousness instead. I'm not sure that Brecht's seriousness needs underscoring these days.
The heroine of his fable -- the titular good person -- is a prostitute named Shen Teh (Randy Danson). Alone among the people of Setzuan, she extends her humble hospitality to the three gods, who have been getting troublesome reports that the world is no place for an honorable human being. "Even by breaking a commandment or two," admits Shen Teh, "I scarcely get by." Still, the gods reward her generous intentions with $1,000 to buy a small tobacco shop -- which is when her troubles really begin.
The original soft touch, Shen Teh becomes the immediate target for all the parasites of Setzuan. Her heart goes out to them, but so, unfortunately, does her meager fortune. There is a biting Brechtian moral here: "He who helps the lost is lost himself." The only way that Shen Teh manages to survive is by changing her garb and her manner and masquerading as a hard-bitten cousin, Shui Ta, who has no compunction about sending the spongers and swindlers packing. But even that device is sorely tested when Shen Teh falls in love with an unemployed aviator (John Leonard in an overheated performance), who promises to whisk her off to Peking, when all he intends to do is take her for a ride.
Torn, as if by lightning, into two halves, Shen Teh embodies the paradox of goodness in an imperfect world. Half of her can continue to do charitable deeds only as long the other half does the dirty work. Danson brings considerable power to the two roles. She plays the prostitute with a soft, bewildered helplessness out of which Shen Teh's acts of kindness surge as uncontrollable impulses. Then, donning dark glasses, a black bowler and a thick leather neck brace that wrenches her head sharply to the left, she transforms herself into the clipped, chilly cousin, who keeps all his emotions in a tight harness.
Shen Teh's plight is a moving one -- unavoidably complicated by the poisons of love and pregnancy. ("Why are the vultures circling overhead?" asks Brecht in Ralph Manheim's succinct translation. "Because a girl is going to a rendezvous.") The potential for comedy lies with all the opportunists, who come knocking at her shop door -- or merely barge in -- as if Shen Teh owed them a living. Some of them -- Dorothea Hammond's crisp landlady; Maggie Winn-Jones' prospective mother-in-law, a flibbertigibbet; Mark Hammer's groveling barber -- are indeed amusing (Hammer will even remind you of a repentant Sweeney Todd). But collectively, the populace of Setzuan has a relentlessness that seems more appropriate to "The Lower Depths."
What comic leavening survives is provided chiefly by Bauer's sniveling water seller and the three increasingly battered gods -- Stanley Anderson, Henry Strozier and Terrence Currier. Starting out fresh and wide-eyed, they end up looking rather like those congenial cartoon drunks in top hats who wrap themselves around lampposts. If they come to the realization that "our commandments seem to be fatal," it is with the reeling innocence of Alice in Wonderland -- a tone otherwise not widely employed at Arena.
Still, if it is less fanciful than it could be, the production has an astonishing visual texture. Building on the choices of the actors themselves, set designer John Arnone and costumer Marjorie Slaiman have coordinated a vivid world of rags and splinters, burlap and chain link. Nancy Schertler's white lighting skitters across the rain-washed stage, adding to the loneliness of an overpopulated city. In such a stark climate, a simple tree branch is an invitation to suicide.
If ever we had any doubts about the ability of goodness to flourish on this cruel planet, one look at Arena's beautifully bleak set would be enough to make the hopeless odds abundantly clear.