Written by Terrence McNally and originally performed by the Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center in 1993, the Topanga Actors Company presented a terrific version of A Perfect Ganesh at Topanga Library that had the packed audience standing and applauding enthusiastically at the end.
The play follows the life of two wealthy, middle-aged women—Margaret Civil and Katherine Brynne—who travel to India in search of inner peace following bereavement, betrayal and illness.
These were played with strength and conviction by Gail Matthius Wirth as mean and moody Margaret Civil and Jeanette Schwaba Vigne, who shone as the grieving but witty Katharine Brynne.
Before the play began, director Paula LaBrot told the audience that this was a staged reading, a forgivable and increasingly common way to perform a wordy play, as it means less rehearsal time for the actors. But reading from a book didn’t stop the actors from getting under their characters’ skins and delivering a range of emotions that audiences usually have to pay big bucks to witness. LaBrot had inspired her actors to dig deep and deliver wonderful performances.
Matthius Wirth and Schwaba Vigne have a fantastic chemistry. The interaction between the two women—at one moment bitchy, the next comforting—was completely believable and familiar to anyone who knows anything about female bonding.
Schwaba Vigne did a fantastic job of delivering her lines with passion and pain, rarely checking her book.Clarence Mitchell played several different male characters with charm, likability and humor. But it was Philip Wiles who stole the show as Ganesh. He had memorized his lines to perfection, performing with great wit, intelligence and humanity.
In her program notes, LaBrot said, “What I love about the characters of Ganesh and the Man in this play are the myriad forms they assume when appearing to Margaret and Katherine. For me, personally, God is like that. He appears in many forms and through every human interaction. God may be in a Pacific sunset or in the casual words of a passing stranger. He is everywhere on the journey Margaret and Katherine take together.”
The play, however, isn’t about religion. It is about shared humanity, kindness, giving people permission to be who they are, and accepting and appreciating diversity.
Beneath the humor and fantasy of A Perfect Ganesh is playwright McNally’s personal concern about the AIDS crisis, a preoccupation with “differences” and how generously we deal with them as individuals and as a society. It is a sad reflection that the issues raised in this play are as relevant today as ever.
“I think theater teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going,” said McNally. “I don’t think theater can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to. Plays don’t do that. People do. But plays can provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to heal and change itself.”
A Perfect Ganesh’s run was short—just two matinees on Saturday, June 17 and Sunday, June 1 —a treat for those wise enough to catch it. And it was free. The audience was invited to drink lemonade and eat cookies after the play and chat with the actors and producers.
A tip of the hat to director Paula LaBrot and producer Judith Hendra who founded Topanga Actors Company, a not-for-profit organization that relies on donations. The simple but effective sets were by Robert Greenfield.
This was the company’s fourth production. Their next one is in November. Mark your calendars.
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