"Balm in Gilead": An Experience like no Other

"Balm in Gilead": An Experience like no Other

As I walked into the “Balm in Gilead” rehearsal, the first thing I saw was two girls fighting each other — they were practicing a sequence, stopping, then beginning again. Liel Dolev ‘20 was wearing a cobalt blue wig and smoking what I hope was a herbal cigarette. When director Phil Soltanoff arrived, wearing a large, knitted purple hat pushed in at the top like a deflated beach ball, I knew I was in for an experience. 

Photos provided by Sue Kessler

Photos provided by Sue Kessler

In short, “Balm in Gilead” is a play about a man trying to decide whether or not to sell drugs after he meets the new girl in town,. A pretty simple cliché — if I dare — play. However, playwright Lanford Wilson does something mesmerizing with this story.

“What makes the play interesting is that there are twenty-two other people who are talking and moving at the same time. So you are getting this very--at the time--sixties experimental play in which theater was trying to break the boundaries of well made play-ness and traditional theater structures into this kind of ‘this is what life is really like in a diner,’” Soltanoff explained.

While watching the rehearsal, I had no idea what was coming next or which characters I should follow. The entire cast and story exists as a healthy mess, and you can only truly understand it by viewing the play. 

When I asked him to explain the directing process of such a multi-layered play, Soltanoff replied, “Imagine you're at the dining hall when it’s crowded, sitting there and people have come in and got their food and sat down. You set your watch for ten minutes and during that time, people do stuff. Then at the end, you stand up and you say ‘hold it, I want you to repeat exactly what you just did for the past ten minutes.’ [This concept] captures the structure of making art out of the chaos.”

Soltanoff’s belief in overflowing reality is evident throughout the piece. The students were brought outside to learn the proper technique of smoking, and the crew is even playing with the idea of bringing in a real stove to the diner. Because most of the characters are tied to drug addiction or prostitution, I was a bit nervous about the direction the director would take.

“What I have found is that there is a tremendous amount of freedom for people who are living with drugs and prostitution, that we as ‘normal’, more polite people don't have. We’ll raise our hand or say excuse me, and they’ll just take something. So in the behavioral, the doing of the behavior, I tried to access the more criminal elements of the characters while skirting around the drug issues.”

“Balm in Gilead” clearly focuses on the reality a theatrical performance can transport audience members into. I enjoy my fair share of theater and the ability to sit down and watch an hour pass in what seems like a half hour at most. However, I did not get this feeling watching the rehearsal. I seemed to exist on the same playing field as the characters.

“For most of the play, you are in exactly the time that is transpiring in the play. I think that’s a deliberate intervention by the playwright, and it’s also very emblematic to me of a sixties theater that’s trying to turn the representation of time into the presentation of time. You hear people all speaking at the same time, existing at the same time,” said Soltanoff. 

Overall, the play holds a lot of potential to be a truly inner-body, inner-theater experience. “Balm in Gilead” allows viewers a glimpse into a community we, as a small, liberal arts college, do not interact with. And it does so in an experimental, transgressing way.

If that is not enough to inspire you, reader, to hit up Skidmore Theater’s website http://www.skidmoretheaternews.com to buy some tickets, performance dates are April 14-15, 19-23 at 8pm, with a matinee on April 23 at 2pm. Perhaps you will finally be convinced by Phil Soltanoff’s parting words on what will attract audience members:

“I think it’s the vibrancy of being in time with this thing, and holy-moly that is an experience.”

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