Three towering redwood trunks constitute the central set design of Primal Forces' new production, Redwood Curtain. From the start, you half-expect Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, Cinderella, and a baker's wife to begin galumphing through the trees, as they did during Into the Woods. This never happens, but Lanford Wilson's play does provide an uneven mix of mysticism, humor, and tragic postwar commentary.
The staging is sincere, but it never finds its groove; scenes end with little impact and proceed gracelessly to the next.
And, like one of Sondheim's questing vagabonds, the teenaged Geri (Amarie Lee) is seemingly lost among the redwoods. But she has a secret mission: to track down her birth father. Sired by a G.I. born in Saigon during the Vietnam War, she was adopted and raised in the United States, where she became a restive piano prodigy and, apparently, developed a genie's supernatural powers. In the play's first scene, she uses them to trail her most promising candidate for fatherhood: Lyman, a limping, homeless, gravel-voiced veteran played with characteristic intensity by Ethan Henry.
Redwood Curtain explores themes of identity, responsibility, and the pressure of great expectations while offering a sad commentary on the shattered lives of Vietnam veterans who "float through town like specters." But the play is as clunky as it is poetic, with dialogue that leans heavily on stilted pedantry, most of it Lee's. "Americans don't look each other in the eye, for all their straightforwardness" is a tough line to sell for even the most accomplished actresses. Lee is not one of them.
There's no nice way to parse the fact that Lee's labored performance just doesn't live up to the requirements of her leading role. Her soliloquies tumble forth like precarious Jenga towers, and she convinces us of neither Geri's eccentric capriciousness nor her soul-searching restlessness.
Nor is it the finest hour for Laura Turnbull as Geneva, Geri's aunt and caretaker. This role seems to sit like an ill-fitting sweater. You get the impression she wants to break free from the emotionally handcuffed character — or at least give Geneva some better lines. Henry is solid, painting a bitter and wounded portrait of a man whom society has left behind. But, necessarily occluded by dark sunglasses, even he founders for a connection to the audience.
Director Keith Garsson selected this play, which premiered on Broadway in 1993, because it fits Primal Forces' inaugural theme — the "Theatre of the Counterculture and Other Revolutions," particularly the antiwar '60s and its modern-day resonance. His staging is sincere, but it never finds its groove; scenes end with little impact and proceed gracelessly to the next.
Redwood Curtain needs to suck us into its world so that we fully accept its surreal flourishes, profound coincidences, and, finally, its shocking revelations. But we're always outside the woods looking in, too disengaged to lose ourselves within them.