SCINTILLA at the Road Theatre Company
Master wordsmith and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Alessandro Camon is more than a just a savvy and beguiling chronicler of the human condition. In his riveting new play Scintilla, now in its world premiere at the Road, he cunningly presents the problems of a group of everyday people to stealthily offer his take on more massive and often seemingly insurmountable global issues.
You know: the big stuff most of us blithely ignore because we can’t see any possible solution as something within our individual control—or perhaps we choose not to look?
Young and upwardly mobile San Franciscan couple Nora and Michael (Krishna Smitha and Kris Frost) travel into the lush and enchanted woods of California’s remote wine country on the pretext of having dinner with his eccentric and reclusive artist mother and to introduce the two women in his life.
More than that, however, his obviously tense and distracted demeanor camouflages his real mission, soon revealed as attempting to convince his pigheaded materfamilias Marianne (Taylor Gilbert) to leave her longtime and beloved rustic tree-sheltered cabin—with major praise here to set designer Stephen Gifford—and relocate her to a place closer where he can stop worrying about her well-being.
There are two reasons why Michael sees this as the only solution, one perhaps more urgent than the other, but both understandable. Not only is there currently a raging wildfire burning nearby rapidly making life in the idyllic region a dangerous prospect but, in the long term, Marianne is starting to face the early stages of Alzheimer’s and he doesn’t want her wandering around in her self-imposed isolation as she begins to fade from life.
As many residents of our state’s mountain communities, Marianne has survived more than one fire threat and isn’t having any. Not only is she perfectly content living alone as she has since the untimely death of her husband in a car accident, there’s a simmering yet quite palpable strain between the mother and son stemming from that very issue.
Into the mix comes Marianne’s neighbor and former boyfriend Stanley (David Gianopoulos), a rugged plaid flannel-clad Jeff Bridges clone who, although he appears to be satisfied with staying friends without benefits, has no real idea why she has unceremoniously dumped him.
Just when the high-strung Michael doesn’t think he could be any more frustrated by this new intruder making his mission to get his mother off to safety tougher, another person shows up, a local homeless tent-dwelling handyman named Roberto (Carlos Lacamara) who has been beaten up by a bunch of assholes who want him to move along from camping out in their utopian community.
If this group thrust together by circumstance isn’t interesting enough—especially spouting the ultra-smart dialogue created by Camon, who has a knack for making us quickly care about the people he creates—once again, Scintilla is a whole lot more than simply seeing if the tension between them can be overcome.
So, what do we have here? A simple, well-constructed, but perhaps predictable little kitchen sink (or is it raw open-beamed hilltop) dramedy where family dynamics are stretched tightly and then released in a heartwarming conclusion? Hardly.
Scintilla is about climate change. It’s about facing our fears. It’s about facing extreme loss when human beings have developed such a gift for putting our troubles on the back burner and hoping the heat dies down without ever having to stick our hands in the proverbial flame.
Above all, it’s about the tenuous survival of our species.
As the fire jumps the highway Marianne and Stanley use as the symbol of their safety, she continues to appear blasé, tossing her spring mix salad, heating her pre-prepared quiche, and pouring endless glasses of wine, each time from a clean glass and eventually popping the cork on the $12,000 1973 vintage bottle she’s been saving forever for a special occasion.
Scintilla is about having to confront loss head-on and dropping the pretense. Stanley sees himself as invulnerable until circumstances prove otherwise and Marianne’s real agenda may or may not include feeling complacent about the future, whether it be suffering long and difficult days as her illness overtakes her feistiness or whether she’d rather simply let the fire do its thing. After all, she quips, she’s always wanted to be cremated.
“It’s funny,” she tells those gathered, “now I spend a lot of time with my memories, knowing they won’t last.” She remembers swimming in a river when she was a kid, long before our collective stupidity poisoned it, and admiring the night sky before it was obscured by smog and the stars still glittered brightly.
“And I realized,” she admits, “I don’t know how to mourn it… how do you mourn a river? How do we mourn starlight? We don’t have prayers for that.” Instead, she says, “We just bamboozle ourselves with bullshit, with drugs, with fucking phones, until we can’t feel a thing.”
Under the precision yet unobtrusive directorial hand of Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, the cast of Camon’s indelibly lingering and hopefully future classic is superb, the quintessential poster children for ensemble performance.
As Marianne, the unstoppable Taylor Gilbert is at her best—and that’s saying a lot considering the body of her work, most of it over the past humina-humina years at the Road where she is founder and longtime co-artistic director.
Here, her slow but steady descent from a headstrong and intractable remnant from the free and loose early days of our generation to someone fighting to stay independent is heartbreaking as we watch her hands begin to shake and her voice become a husky, defeated plea for answers to explain the rapidly crumpling world around us.
Gianopoulos is a perfect sparring partner, a loud and blustery peace-sign flashing survivor who reveals his own haunted memories of an early family disaster and eventually succumbs to his own buried fear of fire despite his dismissal of the idea which could show him to be a sentimental weakling.
Smitha is a rock as Nora, a symbol of compassion and faint hope maybe there's someone around young and caring enough to make a difference, while Lacamara as the proud but lost shell of a man holding onto his dignity, makes a full meal of what could be an easily overlooked role.
Frost might have the play’s most impossible task, helping us relate to someone as contentious and unlikable as Michael, a ridiculous uptight and unswervingly arrogant guy who “doesn’t do messy” but instead only “does algorithms.” His is a continuously frustrating, continuously annoying presence and the actor works theatrical miracles playing someone for whom we would ordinarily have no sympathy.
Still, as brilliant and fiercely committed as this troupe of artists may be, it’s all about the work of Camon, who left me with his eloquent and sometimes disturbing play rattling around in my brain for these several days after I attended and, I suspect, for much longer than that.
“It’s one of those things, like the idea of God,” Marianne realizes. “You can’t hold onto that kind of thought. Our minds can’t go there, even for a moment. How we failed is too much. It’s too terrifying, how we actually failed the whole human experiment.
“We fucked it up, everything we touched, because we must keep going to feed the machine and the machine won’t stop until all the glaciers melt and all the oceans swell and all the cities are burned to the ground or riddled with plague like some fucking ancient prophecy.
“We came into this world, this living planet, with rivers for veins and forests for lungs and mountains for bones and we decided, we actually decided, to become its cancer. All it’s going to take is a spark, a single scintilla, and we’ll all be gone.”
I keep thinking of the qualifications to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, awarded annually for a distinguished play by an American author, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.
Not sure what it takes to get the Pulitzer committee’s attention, but in a fair world the members should be descending on a scrappy little gem of a theatre in NoHo for a look at Alessandro Camon’s exquisite, lyrical, urgently important new play Scintilla.
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