You’d have to be the president of Iran, or someone with a similarly fanciful sense of world history, to question whether the Holocaust happened. But what if you accepted this unfathomable tragedy as fact but didn’t find it so unfathomable — or even so unusual in the broader scheme of things? What’s more, what if you appreciated the logic at the core of this infamous genocide — and said so? You might find yourself on the defensive in polite conversation, and rightly so.
Such would be the fate of Lemon, one of the title characters in Wallace Shawn’s 1985 play Aunt Dan & Lemon, if she ever left her flat to interact with the wider world. Because Lemon doesn’t get out much — owing to an undefined illness that finds her lounging about in pajamas all day and subsisting on fruit and vegetable juices — she has much to tell us, the audience. Her tale is a mixture of reflections on Nazism and recollections of her youth, in particular those passages in which her Aunt Dan was most present.
In Aunt Dan & Lemon now running at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington and produced by Small Potatoes Theater Company, director Pamela Formica’s cast members wring dynamic portrayals from a script that’s sometimes lopsided with polemical monologues and windy musings — Shawn’s signatures as a dramatist. (See the 1990 monologue The Fever and its 2004 screen version starring Vanessa Redgrave.) Strong individual performances by the actors in the title roles keep the blood pumping in this wordy, heady bit of theatrical business.
Lemon (Emer Pond Feeney) narrates and frames the play, which takes place in the present. The bulk of the scenes, however, are retrospective — set in England during the Vietnam War era of the early 1970s. With exceptions such, as a scene where Lemon’s British-born mother (Tara Lee Downs) tells her daughter the story of how she and Lemon’s American-born father (Joshua Neilson) met, the central events transpire over the summer when Lemon was 11 years old. That was the summer when Lemon’s American “Aunt” Dan (Bridget Butler) — actually an old friend of Lemon’s father — spent time with them in the countryside. Aunt Dan, the story goes, introduced Lemon’s parents when all three were at Oxford.
Over the course of that fateful season, Lemon is an audience for Aunt Dan’s stories of her (mis)adventurous life, which introduce the impressionable lass to a diverse cast of characters — a scholar, a floozy, at least one lothario. Why Aunt Dan has singled out Lemon for this attention is unclear, but she holds nothing back. It’s like a slumber-party-game version of My Dinner With André. The impression these tales make on the girl is profound, especially the ambiguous moral hues in which they paint Aunt Dan. Lemon says little during these sessions, which adds an air of self-indulgence — almost boorishness — to Aunt Dan’s character.
Outside of these scenes, Feeney is compelling as Lemon. The juxtaposition of her educated English accent and elevated diction with her childlike bangs and pajamas is disarming. Her invalid status raises initial questions about her past that grow more complex throughout the play. When she comes across at sweet, we suspect that she’s concealing something sinister. The enigmatic edge that Feeney brings to Lemon gives her license to speak freely and at length as the narrator. She may be psychotically cynical, but not for a moment is she tedious.
As Aunt Dan, Butler also rises to the difficult occasion of dramatizing dense Shawnian diatribes. To the play’s tendentious political positions she brings convincing passion. This emotional component becomes crucial in a scene where a difference of opinion does irreparable damage to an important relationship in Dan’s life. She is passionate in other ways, as well, and the lusty stories she shares with 11-year-old Lemon captivate and charm the cloistered girl.
Sometimes Aunt Dan’s political and libidinal passions commingle, as in the erotically tinged fixation she develops on Henry Kissinger, then prosecuting a controversial war in Asia. Butler plays this absurd crush with credible emotion, creating an effect at once amusing and disconcerting. To embody a force of entropy in the lives of the other key characters calls for an energetic presence, and Butler delivers.
Playing Lemon’s mother and father, respectively, Downs and Neilson turn in confident performances in relatively understated roles. Neilson does bust out one spirited monologue early in the play — on the stresses of economic life in England. He earns laughs as his matter-of-fact introduction to his adoptive home yields to a red-faced rant directed at his stateside peers who would presume to know how hard his job is.
Other performances are mixed, the characters less developed. As the somewhat tragic vixen Mindy, Genevra MacPhail is mostly come-hither looks and lavender leggings, and her part calls for little else. As her suitor, Raimondo, Ben Ash works his “Latin lover” shtick to such great comic effect that, after a while, he seems out of place in this play. At the opposite extreme, Sebastian Cliff plays his incidental characters, Andy and Marty, with almost no affect at all.
The most fully realized performance in Aunt Dan & Lemon just might be the director’s. Formica has taken a play with relatively explicit messages and Big Ideas — another hallmark of Shawn’s work — and found ways to keep them hidden for stretches. The author’s repetition for emphasis and tendency toward overstatement challenge the actors to embody rather than enunciate themes — to show, not tell. That the lead actors are as successful as they are, and that Aunt Dan & Lemon moves as fluidly as it does, testifies to Formica’s skill.
What’s more, despite the occasional word barrages, which can impede the drama’s flow, this show strikes a fairly unified tone — somewhere between Bertolt Brecht and Harold Pinter. Shawn’s name has been linked with those two eminent playwrights before. This time, he has Small Potatoes to thank for it.
"Aunt Dan & Lemon," written by Wallace Shawn, directed by Pamela Formica, produced by Emer Pond Feeney for Small Potatoes Theater Company. Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, Burlington. Thursday and Friday, February 23 and 24, at 8p.m., Saturday, February 25, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. $12.
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