Carroll O'Connor's A Certain Labor Day has been talked up in other papers as a work of catharsis following his adopted son's suicide two years ago. It really has nothing to do with that. An alcoholic young man has been written into the play (O'Connor's son had a drug problem), but the story doesn't focus on him; instead it follows his father, an old Studs Terkel-ish liberal who can't drag himself out of the political past. O'Connor plays him with the same churlish warmth he brought to his role as the archconservative Archie Bunker, and in fact Gerry Maher is Archie's mirror image. He's an ex-labor boss who blames himself for losing influence with his subway workers' union and failing, ultimately, to keep America from swinging to the right. Like the Bunkers he lives in some borough of New York; but instead of a liberal son-in-law Maher has to deal with an obnoxious, racist son. "Here comes a reactionary, right out of my own loins," says Maher, whining the way Archie did about Meathead. "God, I don't want to see him today."
That son, Burt, does nothing but shout. Act 1 ends with a tennis-racket fight between him and Maher's other son, the alcoholic Tony, over their sister's affair with a black man. Burt seems like an awfully convenient asshole: a levered-in antagonist rather than the naturally mutant son of a former labor leader. Tony Carlin plays him too rabidly. Neill Barry does a quiet and respectable job as Tony Maher, the alcoholic son, and Jennifer Stander, as the daughter, Josie, seems overwrought and never quite inside her lines.
The family scenes are shakily written and not too successful. But these scenes aren't the core of the play, because following Gerry through every scene is the dusty, tuxedo-dressed ghost of his father, Quint, who's invisible to the other Mahers. Quint dominates. He sits bulldoggishly to the side, frowning, hands on his thighs, dropping comments while Gerry squabbles with his family. Now and then Gerry answers, making his family think he's gone crazy. It's an old routine, but O'Connor is good at it, and Quint nicely dramatizes Gerry's obsession with the past. (He probably takes his name from The Turn of the Screw, but he's earthier than any Henry James manservant, especially the way Eugene Roche plays him.) I like the ghost conceit; I think it works because it doesn't need to seem real: Roche and O'Connor have fun with it. But the rest of the play sprawls. There's a coma-inducing subway accident in Gerry's past that never quite gets explained, and the conclusion needs a real eruption of feeling that the Maher family can't deliver.
-- Michael Scott Moore
The Real Ramona
The Ramona Roses. Written and performed by Janet Borrus. Part of the Solo Mio festival at Fort Mason Center, Sept. 25-28. Call 978-2345.
Janet Borrus has based The Ramona Roses on a starving-artist stint she served as a gym teacher in an East Los Angeles high school. The title refers to the black and Latina girls of Ramona High: "The red means, like, happiness and pain at the same time," one student explains, in a recording of the girls talking about a rosebush before class. Depending on your mood this might sound either charming or sappy; but Borrus kept her show at the Solo Mio festival from oozing treacle by working hard to realize her characters. Yesenia, Lizette, Patty, Carmen, Monique, and Peaches were all distinguishable, if you paid attention, by their voices. And Borrus stuck to the facts of her teaching year, which made the show lively but formless, sort of a stage-mounted documentary.
Borrus starts the show as a gym teacher -- white, unathletic, barely able to play the games she's supposed to teach the reluctant girls -- and moves into sex ed, yearbook, and drama. The girls call her "Miss" and seem to respect her as an authority, although in general they've been through more than she has. Patty's father hits the child with a shoe, for example. Borrus can't believe it and makes a report to the principal, who insists on a filled-out form, which gets sent to some agency and prompts a social-worker visit at the home. Now Patty is afraid of her father, and Borrus feels guilty. "I was still seeing their lives as like a mess of problems," says Borrus, "instead of just their lives."
Many of the girls are pregnant, but during sex ed none of them admits to knowing what an erection is. Borrus tries to explain it by sitting erect. "How am I sitting?" she says. "Straight," they say. "And what has to be straight for you to have sex? [She waits.] I know you're not a lesbian, Lizette!" she shouts. (This was funnier live than it is in print.) But the best effect Borrus musters is a babble of voices that resolves, now and then, into a stirring speech by one of the girls. Patty gives a monologue about gang shootings and guns; there's also a long frantic scene that shows Borrus trying to arrange an abortion for Yesenia, who finally decides against it. "Yeah, I went to Planned Parenthood," she says, "but I'm going to have the baby now. I felt it kick."
The problem with the show -- which played for only three nights at Solo Mio, and now goes on tour -- is that it has almost no structure; the only way you know Borrus isn't about to finish, at any given point, is that she hasn't reached the end of her year yet. The material stays un-unified and raw; sometimes it can't help lagging. But keeping a sentimental tribute from cloying is no easy trick, and Borrus has created six vividly living characters.