Cant Help Loving That Man

Among the persistent images in The Sirens, Darrah Cloud's flawed but powerful new play in its world premiere at the Magic Theatre, are sunglasses. As worn by the battered women on whom this play focuses, they are not only masks to conceal damage but also cosmetic accessories, giving the women a sort of surreal Hollywood glamour.

Directed by Julie HŽbert, and designed by Andy Stacklin with costumes by Laura Hazlett, The Sirens makes excellent use of a series of recurring, simple images: doors, arranged in an abstraction of order and chaos; a piano-as-theatrical-prop on which romantic Chopin melodies are played throughout; and those unforgettable sunglasses.

The Sirens (an elegant pun, referring both to the mythological creatures who lured sailors to certain death, and the wail of emergency vehicles) takes as its dramatic heart the question, “If things were that bad, why did you stay with him?” Constructed in blocks of scenes, the play juxtaposes the experiences of three couples — upper-middle-class Eileen (Kathleen Cramer), the piano player married to a lawyer; Teresa (Regina Saisi), whose husband is a policeman; and the naive young Margo (Mary Ashley), who marries a peace-and-love hippie. On the periphery are homeless Gertrude (Mary Forcade); Sparky (Raquel Haro), a feisty young Latina trained in self-defense; and a cosmetics saleswoman (June A. Lomena).

I have to admit a certain prejudice going into The Sirens. Besides the timely congruence with the O.J. Simpson carnival, I dislike plays that attempt to coerce a sympathetic response. They strike me not only as unconvincing, but they diminish the plight of sufferers whose real-life tragedies have inspired them. Worse, they deny their subjects' humanity by turning characters into puppets. Drama is about choice, the needs that drive the decisions we make. If a person or character is denied choice, there is no drama. Simple as that. To paraphrase Chekhov, theater is about raising the question, not drawing conclusions.

Cloud does not invite us to decide how we feel about violence against women. She assumes we are against it, and opts instead to look at the paralysis of people who seem unaware they have a choice. She focuses on their bewilderment at how they have gotten into this situation and what they could do about it. While she might have delved into one abusive relationship to great effect, Cloud instead presents a sort of pastiche of various types of said relationships. We do not ask what will happen, but, rather, when the inevitable will take place. Starting with the women as young girls engaged in various innocent pursuits, the playwright builds their circumstances, casually setting fires that we know will flare to crisis proportions.

The marriage of Dennis (Rod Gnapp) and Margo stands in as the play's centerpiece. They meet as young transplants to an unnamed city (the play was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre) in the late '60s. Dennis, eager to join the “revolution,” is into macrobiotics and flower-child philosophy — “Love should be everywhere, all the time … I want to do it with Nixon.” He also wants to teach Margo the ways of the world. When next we see them, Margot is wearing sunglasses and the police are questioning Dennis about a domestic dispute. “She just lost control,” Dennis explains. “Control is the issue here.” In the next breath he asks the cops about what it's like to carry a gun: “How do you keep from blowing the whole world away?” Then, in remorse, “I'm nothing without her. So why does she treat me like this?” Margo suffers in silence until she figures out what to do: “I made a mistake,” she says, refusing to press charges.

Teresa cautiously opens her door to a Mary Kay representative (Lomena), and tries to buy enough “concealer” to cover a massive bruise on her neck. She learns the saleswoman is divorced. “Your parents let you do that?” Teresa asks incredulously. When her husband Frankie (Dennis Matthews) looms in the doorway, we recognize him as one of the policemen.

Gertrude is the only woman who has opted for life on the streets rather than marriage to a violent man, but she continues to suffer harassment from the police, who jail her for failure to produce identification: “No one knows who you are, Gertrude.”

Sparky learns her self-defense tactics well and kills a would-be rapist (Michael C. Patterson). Teresa finally raises a gun against Frankie. And Eileen, who has been a shadowy dream figure playing the piano throughout, similarly dispatches her batterer (also played by Matthews).

The second act takes place in prison. Here Cloud seems to relinquish her objective stance and, in the process, nearly causes her carefully constructed drama to collapse. Margo appears as a tormented ghost, visible only to the other women, trying to figure out where she is and what has happened to her children. We understand that the restraining order she has obtained against Dennis has not protected her.

But this device introduces a supernatural element and instantly romanticizes the preceding events. So when Margo cries to the surviving women, “You can change. You're alive,” it seems more the playwright's voice than the character's. And even though the central theme of sirens resonates more fully and ironically, Cloud allows herself to wax poetic, introducing such biblical references as the lion lying down with the lamb. It's as though she is unable to stand back and let the play reach its own conclusions, as though she simply has to interject a hopeful note.

HŽbert's crisply effective direction underplays the sensationalistic and puts the focus squarely on the human element. Disturbing though Sirens most certainly is, it's never boring. Hœbert draws marvelous performances from this gifted ensemble — especially Ashley as the ingenuous Margo, Saisi as Teresa, Cramer as Eileen, Forcade as Gertrude and Haro as Sparky — and manages to unmask what this country's come to think of as a dirty little secret.

The Sirens runs through April 23 at the Magic Theatre in S.F.; call 441-8822.

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