The challenge in staging Terrence McNally's "A Perfect Ganesh" is to make theatergoers feel they have gone on a journey of redemption and renewal right along with the play's protagonists.
They are a pair of Connecticut matrons vacationing in India. It is a tribute to director Terry J. Long's lyrical production at AXIS Theatre that by the time Kitty Brynne and Margaret Civil's holiday ends, the audience has indeed journeyed, experienced and grown.
This feeling of a shared experience is one of the chief gifts live theater can give. And McNally, who has written a number of plays about holidays -- his most recent, "Love! Valour! Compassion!" won the 1995 Tony Award -- clearly recognizes this is an ideal format for taking theatergoers on vicarious trips.
But this episodic format only works if the actors imbue their characters with empathy. AXIS gets high marks in that regard. As warm, ebullient Kitty, Mary Alice Feather would appear to have a relatively easy task. But Kitty is also a deeply troubled woman, still grappling with her relationship with her homosexual son, who was beaten to death by homophobes. Kitty has never come to terms with his death, largely because she has never come to terms with his homosexuality. Her prejudice is ugly and hateful, but in letting us see Kitty's struggle to overcome it, Feather wins our sympathy.
In contrast, Margaret is angry, bossy and definitely more difficult care about. Yet Carol Cohen shows us the pain underlying Margaret's anger. Margaret also lost a son, in her case, when he was just 4 years old. Unable to talk about it -- even to her best friend Kitty -- Margaret unexpectedly unburdens herself to a Japanese stranger in a Bombay hotel, and Cohen is sincerely moving as she re-lives the little boy's funeral.
"A Perfect Ganesh" includes lots of fantasy, beginning with the elephant-headed Hindu god of the title -- a cheerful deity known for removing obstacles, as jolly Patrick R. Field explains in one of Ganesh's many narrative speeches.
The sense of fantasy is enhanced by John D. Warren and Brian Jacobs, who are largely successful in assorted roles of various nationalities, ages and both genders.
In a recent lecture at Washington's Kennedy Center, the playwright said "A Perfect Ganesh" was inspired by two American housewives he met briefly on a train in India. He invited them to the play's New York opening, but what they saw upset them. "This play isn't anything like us!" they responded.
The point isn't how accurately McNally portrayed these particular women. The point is whether he created believable characters, and he unquestionably did. Still, AXIS breathes life into McNally's characters and makes us glad to share their journey.
'A Perfect Ganesh'
Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Nov. 19. Through Nov. 19
Tickets: $12 and $14
$ Call: (410) 243-5237