|Paula Langton (left), Angie Jepson, and Ken Cheeseman in Howard Zinn's ''Daughter of Venus.'' (Boston Playwrights' Theatre)|
Howard Zinn, the historian and social activist, is best known as the author of such works as "A People's History of the United States" and "You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train." But he has also written several plays. And, as part of a yearlong celebration of his life and work, Suffolk University and Boston Playwrights' Theatre are jointly presenting a fully staged production of one of those plays, "Daughter of Venus."
The play was first produced in 1985, during the late-Cold-War-era campaign for a freeze on nuclear weapons, which is its clear inspiration. Once the Cold War ended, Zinn has said, he put it aside because he felt it had become outdated, but a recent reading persuaded him to update it for today's audiences. Presented last weekend at Suffolk's C. Walsh Theatre, it repeats this week and next at the more intimate Playwrights' Theatre space at Boston University.
In a sense, the play's central concerns - personal and social ethics; the balance of obligations to ourselves, our families, and our fellow citizens; the uses and abuses of political and scientific power - remain as timely as ever. But the ways in which these issues play out feel very much rooted in the play's original time and place, and so the attempts to update it by adding a few references to terrorism or keeping the identity of the sitting president vague serve only to dilute the story's specificity without making it feel current.
That's unfortunate, because Zinn not only displays a fluid and passionately committed style but also is attempting to do something interesting with it: to interweave a story of familial tensions and national politics, and in doing so to remind us that the way we live our lives on the small, local, day-to-day scale of family life can have repercussions and implications for the life of the nation at large. But because "Daughter of Venus" is now caught in a kind of half-fast-forwarded time warp, it's hard to connect with its characters either as specific creatures of their historical moment (because we no longer know just when that is) or as characters who transcend a particular time (because they don't, quite, at least not yet).
The half-hearted time shift also wreaks havoc with some logistical questions. If Paolo, the central character and paterfamilias, was a biophysicist working on early nuclear tests, how are his children only in their 20s now? And in today's managed-care environment, would his wife's suicide attempt have led to the long hospital stay that's a key part of the plot? Such questions may not undermine a play completely, but when there are enough of them they nag at us, pulling our attention away from where it belongs.
Director Wesley Savick introduces a few odd distractions of his own. Why, for example, does a flashing light bulb, rather than the usual ring, signal a phone call? And why does he have the actors mime most of their actions - preparing dinner, answering that phone - but then work with some actual props, too? Perhaps this slightly off-putting oddness, along with Jon Savage's vaguely surreal set, is meant to signal that we're not quite in reality here; there is something metaphorical going on with the title, too, after all, though we're never quite sure if the Venus in question is the planet, the goddess, or both.
Savick does have a strong cast to work with: an intense Ken Cheeseman as Paolo, a feisty Angie Jepson as his rebellious daughter, and, as his troubled wife, Paula Langton, who's mostly silent except in flashbacks but nevertheless remains onstage above the main action, seated at a piano and occasionally noodling on it. Stephen Russell plays the government-issue bad guy with nuance, and Alex Pollock gives the mysteriously damaged son a sweet naivete. But their characters, like the story itself, never quite reach us in the here and now.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.