Title: Lighthouses in the Desert. Playwright: Richard James Zieman
At: Schwartz Stage at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets: $25; GlassAppleTheatre.com. Runs through: Dec. 19
Nowadays, the term "one-act play" can be applied to nearly any intermissionless dialoguepreliminary sketches, excerpted scenes or workshop exercises alike. At one time, however, it defined a play that, though short in duration, exhibited all the structural elements and tradecraft found in its lengthier cousins. Amid the anomaly of a world becoming ever more fragmented, it comes as no surprise that writers' imaginations should turn from celebrations of existential enigmas to seek security within the boundaries of humble citizens grappling with microcosmic problems.
Our setting is a shabby single-room apartmentonce comfortably cozy, but now sadly neglectedin a large, noisy city. Below the mail slot is a pile of notices proclaiming the building's imminent demolition, but don't be fooled by the boxes of manuscript and newspaper clippings scattered about its elderly tenant's floor and tabletops. Gail has no intention of relocating, but is instead concocting a scheme to provide sex worker Toni, her neighbor across the hall, a fresh start in life. As both of these urban castaways strive to ignore the encroaching eviction date through stubborn denial and dogged inertia, the latter shares the saga of her escape from a series of "husbands" procured by a father willing to surrender his daughter in payment for his gambling debts, while the former reminisces about a life of drudgery spent slinging coffee in diners and spinning extravagant fantasies about her customers.
There's one other character onstage, howevera server in a pink uniform who is identified in the playbill as "the waitress"someone who offers Gail counsel and commentary, but vanishes whenever Toni is present. Is she a lingering specter of Gail's youthful self, a hallucination conjured by an increasingly befuddled mind, or an angel of death robed in an apron and Keds?
If this were a Pinter play, we would detect hints of menace pointing us toward its probable ending, likewise the ego-driven contrivances of Edward Albee and the circle of playwrights associated with the Caffe Cino in the mid-1960s, but author Richard James Zieman rejects the temptation to showiness. Under the guidance of Glass Apple director Cheryl Snodgrass, Ellen Shaw's isolated Gail, Fawn Johnstin's street-toughened Toni and Kristin Doty's mysterious observer navigate the relentlessly naturalistic environment invoked by scenic designer Lauren M. Nichols, lighting designer Jessica Neill, costume designer Tina Haglund Spitza and sound designer DJ Douglass (whose score of passing traffic and EMS sirens are realistic enough to have originated outside on Clark Street) to remind usas did Horton Foote's weary travelers and, more recently, Lanford Wilson's derelict driftersthat resilience is a fragile commodity in times of widespread social upheaval.