Junkies, hustlers, and whores hang around an all-night New York City diner, screaming for coffee and at each other. They are here every night, waiting. Some wait to score, others to pimp, and all wait for a cup of coffee. But they also hope that if they just hang out long enough, familiarity will breed friendship, and they will no longer be alone in the middle of a crowd. Rake, an omniscient junkie hustler played brilliantly by Danny Belrose, says of whores who hang onto their johns despite poor treatment, "They want someone around." This is the world Lanford Wilson created in his mid-1960s play Balm in Gilead, currently in Chicago and directed by Sean Graney.
In this crowded production (the cast numbers 26, most of them members of Graney's acting company The Hypocrites), there's not one character that the audience gets to know particularly well. Instead, we are given a snapshot of a group of people at a moment in time. Watching the play is very much like being in a diner, overhearing lots of conversations and having to infer each character's background. The set design, also done by Graney, creates the feeling that one is sitting among the characters. Overlapping dialogue and action frequently compete for the viewer's attention, but because some sightlines are entirely blocked, one ends up focusing on what one can see and tuning out much of the rest. The flip side of the intricate set design is that you may be unable to see the entire scenes, including the climax, as happened to this reporter. If you care about seeing all the action, come early and grab a seat in the middle of the theater.
If there are any main characters, they are Joe (Steve Wilson) and Darlene (Niki Prugh). Their relationship could be viewed as a classic "bad boy in trouble meets good-minded country girl" coupling, but it speaks more about the refreshment love provides to both people than about the reformation Darlene provides to Joe. A newcomer to New York, Darlene is just as lonely and needy as Joe, who's isolated himself by getting into a drug deal with "the wrong kind of people." Neither is portrayed as on a higher moral ground than the other.
The first and the second acts start in almost exactly the same way, underscoring the monotony in the lives of the characters, who seem to end up at the diner each night. There, with the motley crew assembled, mayhem and insanity can erupt at the slightest provocation, but, occasionally, the cast freezes in silent tableaus resembling Edward Hopper paintings, only with more (and more colorful) characters. These quiet moments suggest that all this noise and anger is just the characters' desperate attempt to connect to one another, to break the silence that hangs over all of them. They keep bouncing off of one another, but never find anything to which they can hold on or stay attached.
Wilson lacks any particular charm as Joe, but Prugh is an effective Darlene, though a lengthy monologue she delivers in the second act is beyond saving. From the cast at large, Belrose and Geoff Button, as Dopey, are standouts. The rest contribute skillfully to the feel of the diner's path towards entropy. The actors have also found as many ways to play a junkie as there are junkies that need playing. There's a mohawked, red-faced, crazy-eyed man; a man in a blue furry suit; and a goth guy, all of them affected by drugs in different ways. With so many characters, though, they simply lack the chance to make their mark. Still, when the ensemble is clearly improvising, the result is hilarious and charming.
In the end, this production is energetic enough to keep you engaged rather than embittered over the difficulty of seeing certain things. And you will wish for the characters to find their balm, of which Jeremiah 46:11 says: "Go up to Gilead and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt; In vain you will use many medicines; You shall not be cured."
Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division Street, 312-409-5578. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m. Tickets are $18.