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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Fighting Words

Men need to hit each other.--- Mrs. Davies

The fine art of violence is reflected through the lives and eyes of three Welsh women in Sunil Kuruvilla's stunning and unique play, now making a pit stop at the Celtic Arts Theatre on its way to Wales where this production will open the new Wales Millenium Centre. Kuruvilla, a Canadian playwright of East Indian descent, uses the dramatic backdrop of the real-life 1980 boxing match in Los Angeles between Welshman Johnny Owen from the small poverty-stricken mining town of Merthyr Tydfil and Mexican Lupe Pintor for the Bantamweight World Championship.

Virtually the entire male population of Welsh miners who spend their nights boxing in the local gym went to California to root for Johnny. The women watched the fight in the gym and Kuruvilla's three fictional characters are inspired by that event.

Before and after the fight, Peg (Magi Loucks), an aspiring boxer who is Johnny's secret sparring partner and yearns to marry him and her sister Nia (Bernadette Sullivan), a married woman and aspiring BBC announcer in whom Johnny confides, duke it out emotionally, as sisters and rivals for a man who is married to boxing. In Nia's practice interviews Peg impersonates Johnny, giving us a glimpse of the eager 24-year-old. The dueling between the sisters is ferocious, pitching Sullivan's silky witty tormenting against Loucks' powerful desire.

Their older landlady, Mrs. Davies (Laura Gardner), whose husband has joined Nia's husband George and the other men to watch Johnny's fight in Los Angeles, is the conventional mid-generational ballast to the younger women. Her cheerful willfully obtuse humor is skillfully deployed by the playwright to defuse their intensity. Still it's Mrs. Davies who knows, declaing that " a good marriage takes a lot of effort. You don't realize. You're young and pretty."

By contrasting the choreographed commercialism of the boxing ring with the suppressed passions and conflicts of the women whose lives it touches, Kuruvilla paints a universal picture using the saga of a small town hero who had his moment in the sun of a world arena. When they come home, we'll go back to being what we were before, says Mrs. Davies but that's as unlikely as teaching a cat to bark¸ in Nia's words.

The three actresses are reprising the roles they created with director Tim Byron Owen when Fighting Words made its West Coast debut at the CAC in 2004. Magi Loucks embodies the fiery passion of the Matchstick Man, as Owen was called, and also makes it her own as her character, Peg, yearns to be not only Johnny's lover but his equal. She talks about the sparring matches they have in the gym after hours with a sensuousness that equates the desire to draw blood from one's opponent with a sexual climax. Her physical virtuosity in the boxing scenes is stunning.

Bernadette Sullivan's Nia, who has coached Johnny in how to answer interview questions, believes she can bring out a poet in him to match her own desire for a life in the world of words. With dark intensity she delivers a monologue as his opponent Lupe Pintor and the hideous childhood that drives his boxing with the implacable determination never to return to that life. It echoes Nia's own desire to escape the confines of her limited marriage and small-town life.

Laura Gardner's Mrs. Davies is delicious and funny. Though she accepts her role as wife with obtuse optimism, she has a sense of play and a warmth that brings welcome color to the play.

Director Tim Byron Owen never lets his cast go over the top but sees to it that they each fulfill their potential for passion. The scenes are beautifully divided with dark uncredited music that is a pleasure in itself. Tim Hannon has designed an evocative set part of which serves as a Welsh country kitchen but all of which is rimmed with boxing ring posts swathed in blood.

Editor's Note: This is the same play that enjoyed a brief and most impressive Off-Broadway run by a new young company. The terrific cast I saw marked my first sighting of the incredible Jane Houdyshell whose performance in Lisa Kron's Well garnered raves both at the Public Theatre and when it opened on Broadway --where, sad to say, it closed way too early on the very day that I'm posting Laura's review of the Celtic Arts Center's production.
Playwright: Sunil Kuruvilla
Director: Tim Byron Owen
Cast: Bernadette Sullivan (Nia), Laura Gardner (Mrs. Davies), Magi Loucks (Peg).
Set Design: Tim Hannon
Lighting Design: Peter Strauss
Wardrobe: Jennifer Michaud
Sound Design: Reid Woodbury
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: April 28 to June 11, 2006
Where:. The Celtic Arts Center, 4843 Laurel Canyon Blvd, Studio City, Reservations: (818) 760-8322
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 12.
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