Remember what old Chekhov said? “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” The same principle is true of a garden hose in Mourning Dove, and indeed, its eventual utility is far more pernicious than lawn irrigation.
Even in the Cellar Theater’s busy, beautifully represented garage-workshop set — where Emil Sher’s weepy drama takes place — it stands out oh-so subtly among the repurposed coffee cans, the caulk, tools, and paintbrushes, the boxes labeled “baby clothes.” This garage is where Doug Ramsay (Lawrence Coop) copes. The chilling buzz of an electric saw played over the theater speakers contrasts with the warm, uneven hum of his handsaw as the lights go up on him. He is Classic Dad: a hint of stubble, an inch to pinch, a plaid button-up layered over an Aquaman T-shirt.
He is not alone, though, as he builds a smallish wooden ark in his sanctuary, whose nooks are havens for stuffed hippos and preserves for pig puppets. A blurred, rosy spotlight to the right of his workbench and overheard wheezes of battled-for breath intimate the presence of another — his deeply loved, severely disabled daughter, Tina (Morgan Scharff). Her immaterial presence is a crafty vestige of Mourning Dove’ original incarnation as a radio drama.
Tina is set to go under the knife — or rather saw — for the nth time since birth, for a hopeless-sounding “salvage surgery.” Like her husband, Tina’s mama Sandra (Christy Huffman) endures the heartbreak and panic by means of making. Classic Mom (how she does that smile-frowning thing) bedazzles “Team Tina” baseball jerseys, while Doug and a mentally challenged family friend, Keith (Michael Burger), cook up a theatrical production of the biblical flood story. Keith’s particular responsibility is the construction of a mourning dove, for which he’s ordered special plastic eyes.
Effusive and good-natured, Keith can’t resist drawing out the logical flaws and moral gaps in Doug’s play during rehearsal, though his fanciful solutions are wholly illogical themselves. “I don’t like scripts,” Burger squeaks in an impish cartoon-character voice on behalf of a plush animal whose sisters are about to drown. How could God choose which pair — only a pair! — of animals from each species to spare? “I could decide,” asserts Doug. Ah, so the play’s the thing that will ease the conscience of the king — er, papa.
Yada-yada, a sweet date with mommy, Noah and Shem in bathrobes and beards, Sandra goes to church, Doug revs up the car engine. Hey, don’t fear the Reaper, pumpkin — you deserve “peace of mind and peace of body.” But can real peace — for which the dove is symbol, doy — be achieved by way of execution? Don’t look at me. Better ask Kierkegaard.
For his part, the playwright leaves it to you to decide whether this was mercy killing or murder. The Council of Canadians with Disabilities declared the death of Tracy Latimer, upon whose life Mourning Dove was loosely based, the latter. This production’ director, Matthew Byron Cassi, might sway audiences to the same conclusion simply because he has cast such an excellent actor in the role of Keith, who so movingly grieves Tina and so effectively fears his own demise because he’s handicapped, too.
Bring tissue folks, it’ gonna be a wet one. •
Through Jul 11
The Cellar @ San Pedro Playhouse