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A CurtainUp DC Review

by Dolores Whiskeyman

Heaven, George F. Walker's new comedy, is a bit like being rum-punch drunk on a roller coaster: those wild curves are lots of fun -- but wait till the ride is over. 

Whoops. That's when you start to wonder at the wisdom of it all. 

Heaven opened Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company's 21st season on Sept. 2. It swings wildly between moments of high comedy and brutal violence, but it's only when the lights come down that the holes in the script loom large. You don't notice them so much when the thing is on the tracks. And thanks to director Howard Shalwitz and a remarkable cast -- particularly Rick Foucheux as a corrupt, embittered cop and Mitchell Hebert as a jaded attorney -- Heaven is quite a ride. 

This is the American premiere of a new play by a Canadian writer best known for antic comedy. But while Heaven is darkly funny, it is fundamentally an angry play about a screwed up universe--in which eternal salvation is sometimes available to the most undeserving simply on the basis of a technicality. 

The play opens in a park in a rough section of a Canadian city, where Karl Smith (Foucheux) is drinking himself stupid over the suicide of a fellow cop. He blames that death on James Joyce ďJimmyĒ Milliken (Hebert), a civil rights lawyer from the old neighborhood who sacrificed friendship for career advancement. 

Jimmy has his own problems. A closet bigot with a crumbling marriage, he lashes out constantly with an acid tongue. Much of his venom is aimed at his wife, Judy (Naomi Jacobson), and her rabbi, David (John Lescault), whom Jimmy suspects of trying to break up his marriage. Jimmy, it seems, is a lapsed Catholic whose marriage to Judy is based in part on rebellion. When Judy returns to the faith she abandoned to marry him--out of "loneliness," she explains -- Jimmy is threatened. Worse -- she is pregnant and wants an abortion. 

So Jimmy takes out his torment on a panhandler, Derek (David Lamont Wilson), needling him with racial slurs and picking a fight that literally puts Jimmy in a wheelchair. Jimmy has a tender side as well, though. It comes out in his ministrations to a homeless 16-year-old heroin addict, Sissy (Emerie Geiger Snyder), a guileless child of simple wisdom, as, of course, all 16-year-old heroin addicts are. 

And all this is only the set-up -- cranking the cars, as it were, to the edge of that first, gut-wrenching drop that sends your heart soaring into your throat. That moment occurs when Judy stumbles upon Karl giving poor Derek a working over for failing to deliver a key piece of contraband. What happens next is one of the most shocking scenes Iíve witnessed on stage -- brutal, almost unwatchable, and yet ó we watch. 

That would be point enough for any play, but itís not the point Walker is making, apparently. In this play, death is just another plot twist to get us to scenes of paradise. For heaven, in Walker's mind, is a lot like Fantasy Island -- where you get to be what you could never be on earth. And dammit, it's fun. 

The bulk of the play from there concerns redemption -- Jimmy's mostly -- and the mission he is dispatched to carry forth -- to reclaim his lost humanity. We donít mind watching him do it. Hebert is a wonderful actor whose talents overcome the weaknesses of the text. 

For Walker has not written characters, but billboards for his philosophy. Jimmy is downright vile at points -- a sour liberal who secretly despises his clientele, nasty beyond any apparent motivation to be nasty. Karl is even worse -- confessing to his crimes for no good reason, covering his tracks with violence when he clearly isnít cornered -- these are the actions of someone who isnít just bad, but crazy. And Judy is a shrew. 

The most sympathetically written character is the rabbi, whom Lescault plays with a sense of moral urgency -- a man who sees the work before him and gets to it -- who overcomes his grief in order to take care of those who are in much worse shape than he is. 

And then thereís our heroin addict, always crossing the stage on a unicycle or stilts -- a living metaphor, I suppose, for the carnival aspect of human existence -- this great circus we call life on earth? I cannot guess. 

In the end it almost doesnít matter. Walker closes with a riotiously funny monologue by Jimmy and the lights go down on a happy house.  
by George Walker

With Mitchell Hebert, Naomi Jacobson, Rick Foucheux, John Lescault, David Lamont Wilson and Emerie Geiger Snyder
Set Design: Jim Kronzer 
Lighting Design: Jay A. Herzog 
Costume Design: Edu. Bernadino 
Sound Design: Hana Sellers 
Fight Choreographer: John Gurski 
Dance Choreographer: Karen Bradley
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church Street (202) 393-3939
Web Site:
Opened Sept. 2, 2000 Closes October 1, 2000.
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Sept. 6 based on a Sept. 2 performance 

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