by Chloe Loos
All I knew about Lanford Wilson’s Angels Fall was what I learned from a quick Google search: nuclear accident, New Mexico, mission. As a theatre-artist-turned-environmental-advocate, this sounded exactly like the kind of theatre I want to see. Offered by Winding Road Theater Ensemble, directed by recent Chicago transplant Molly Lyons, and held at the site-specific St. Francis Chapel on the grounds of St. Luke’s Home, I went in with high expectations.
The play opened with a gorgeous reveal of the interior chapel, accented with an altar and luminous stained glass window. The wind blows. Niles and Vita Harris (Glenn Coffman and Shawna Brock) – an art professor and his wife on their way to Phoenix – enter. Vita, with her long red hair, flowing clothing, and crystal necklace immediately told me that, oh yeah, we’re definitely in New Mexico. Another traveling couple (Susan Cookie Baker and Cole Potwardowski), the mission’s priest (David Alexander Johnson), and a Navajo medical student (Luke Salcido) join them. A nuclear accident at the nearby uranium mine forces them to stay indoors, and what else is there to do but talk?
Unfortunately, the show didn’t quite live up to the expressive opening. The characters did talk, and they talked a lot. Lyons’ director’s note expressed the desire for the audience to eavesdrop, and the venue and staging certainly lent itself to that. However, due to the intimate nature of the space, traditional theatre acting sometimes bordered on caricature. The play soared when characters were able to break through to each other and find moments of understanding, and also when the characters were vulnerable as they remembered what dire straits they were in. I especially appreciated the female camaraderie between Brock and Baker, but the women continued to define themselves in relationship with their men. Regrettably, the script itself often forgot why everyone was brought together, and it didn’t include its secondary couple very well. They could have been omitted without any plot changes, which would have been a shame as I enjoyed Baker’s understated yet refined performance and Potwardowski’s physical neuroticism. In addition, there were some mistakes made with lines, as expected in such a dense piece, but the small space drew attention to them.
Ensemble pieces are difficult, but every actor had at least one moment that escalated them to the spotlight, often with other characters when they were able to work off each other’s energies. Truly, the stagecraft was the star of the show. I was thoroughly impressed with the sound design (by Jim Klingenfus), which took up space and built the outside world, the set of the chapel itself, nearly its own character, and the clear costuming (by Maria Caprile). I completely believed the world of these characters. And the world of these characters is so important today.
The play was published in 1981. Despite a brief mention of the Cold War in the program to indicate its age, I had no idea it was nearly 40 years old. As a result, I was not prepared for the racism embedded in the script, especially towards the Navajo. A major subplot involved the mission’s priest trying to convince the native character, Don, to stay on the reservation and help his people rather than going to research cancer, even though Don presented an impassioned speech as to the systemic exposure of native peoples to radiation. It reiterated the colonial history of white people infantilizing and ignoring the autonomy of indigenous peoples. But I don’t think the script knew it was doing that. This is further confirmed by some of the offensive jokes – such as a line about Don potentially scalping his coworkers – that the predominantly old, white audience laughed at.
Although Salcido thankfully gave a considerate and crucial acknowledgement as to the plight of indigenous peoples in the program, a verbalized land acknowledgment and recognition of the outdated language in the script would have been welcomed. If we were able to recognize these archaic elements of the text, the audience would have been prepared to analyze the relationships among characters in a more reflexive and critical way. As denizens of the Southwest, it is important to know about the 80+ year history of uranium mining on indigenous lands, which is still happening. Regrettably, it was nothing more than a side plot in a play that thrived on the extreme privilege of the other members of the ensemble.
Angels Fall plays at the St. Francis Chapel at St. Luke’s Home on the West side of First Avenue halfway between E Adams and Lee Street until March 1st. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2:00pm. Seats are extremely limited, so book your tickets now at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4218427 or by calling 520-401-3626.