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A CurtainUp Review Cherry Docs

by Kathryn Osenlund

I am taking you through the eye of the needle. You are the thread -- Danny
The Wilma Theater on Philadelphia's Avenue of the Arts is presenting the U.S. premiere of Canadian playwright David Gow's remarkable play, Cherry Docs.

A play of meetings between the skinhead perpetrator of a vile hate crime and his Jewish legal-aid lawyer, it is not an easy play. It is complex. It demands thought. It is worth it.

I've seen plays where two characters go through reciprocal change, but not like this. The meetings are framed and punctuated by direct-address pieces to the audience. The lawyer, Danny, will insist that the young offender, Mike, help construct his own defense, a method of making the young man "stand up" and be accountable.

David Strathairn (known for his film work with John Sayles as well as for his roles in L.A. Confidential, A League of Their Own, The Firm, and Shepard and Pinter plays and others) is lawyer Danny Dunkelman. The young skinhead, incarcerated throughout the play, is somehow not your usual thug. He is played by Jason Field, a veteran of NY workshops, Outlaws, the Treasures of the Collier Brothers and regional theater.

Danny Dunkelman is a liberal, a fact the defendant relies upon, but the case at hand goes beyond the perhaps expected idea of defending First Amendment rights. The play is a polarized and charged situation about murder and hate. Neo-Nazi sentiments expressed by Mike, according to the playwright, are not new but "the contemporary face of an old ideology of hatred." The polarization is undercut by a holistic sentiment which grows as the play proceeds. Talk of fabric and threads recurs as the play hits home, ". . .the threads of a cloth, a divine cloth. You want to be a lone thread, go ahead. You want to rip that fabric? Go at it." The lawyer's spirituality informs his actions. He becomes conflicted about his own 'official' stances and his latent prejudices and ambitions, and he is troubled by a lack of support from his family and colleagues as he puts more and more time into the defense. As it becomes his crusade, he begins to crumple. The racist, white supremacist punk, who once said to his lawyer, "In an ideal world I'd see you eliminated," comes to some realizations about good and evil, and reaches a place where he thinks it is not even enough just to tolerate.

All this may sound Shavian and didactic, but it isn't. The two men are pretty much persons operating out of their souls. Because of the monologue-reliant structure, the meetings have the feel of demonstrations of meetings rather than the meetings themselves.

The characters begin to address each other by their real names, Daniel and Michael, and the play lifts and enters into an unmistakable realm of allegory as it approaches the end. "Michael, stand up," (epilogue from The Book of Daniel) represents perhaps, what Danny does for Mike. Maybe people like Daniel may change the world through righteousness.

The set with its unfinished, extended bars evokes more than a prison interview room. It has an appeal and an almost biblical feel. It makes a subtle demand on the viewer, inviting recognition of ramifications beyond the prison in which these meetings take place, a larger prison of our own prejudices. The playwright, in a symposium held at the theater, stated that as soon as we look at hatred as being outside of our own experience, we have separated ourselves from accountability.

The lighting is inspired; it helps to lift the set to where it needs to be emotionally to support this play. Titles, images and shapes are projected. The titles underscore certain days, which are maybe seen as more strands or threads that comprise the cloth of the play, the cloth of seven threads, the days of the week. The threads must interweave and dance through one another. The fabric of society? The universe?

The title: If you have to ask you are probably over 30 and you are certainly not a skinhead. Cherry Docs are cherry colored Doc Marten's combat boots, youth culture staples favored by some skinheads.

The acting is a display of earnest virtuosity in service to a cause-- no histrionics in a play where histrionics would be understandable, and no virtuosity for its own sake. It is understated and controlled, reflecting good direction and allowing the play to soar toward the end when you want it to. The use of music, composed by Adam Wernick, is restrained. Because of its poetic, evocative writing and because its message is not simplistic, the play is quite profound.


Directed by Jiri Zizka, Artistic Director
Cast: David Strathairn, Jason Field
Set Design: Jerry Rojo
Lighting Design: Jerold R. Forsyth
Costume Design: Sarah Iams
Running time: 90 min. No intermission 5/03/2000-6/04/2000

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on May 10 press opening

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