Mueen Jahan, Cameron Gregg, Kathleen Gray, Mary Allwright in A Perfect Ganesh (Photo by Dennis Stover)
As patrons slowly head back to theatres wearing masks, hoping for a touch of redemption, Terrence McNally’s A PERFECT GANESH reflects their deep desire for a transcendent moment.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, California (The Hollywood Times) 11-07-21
“I may think I have inalienable rights to be alive and happy, but I don’t – life is a blessing.” – Terrence McNally
At The Pico Theatre, Campus Cabaret, LA’s newest theatre company, marks the start of a truly new season with Terrence McNally’s A PERFECT GANESH. Performed admirably by an ensemble cast that stars Kathleen Gray (Katharine), Mary Allwright (Margaret), and Mueen Jahan (Ganesh*), the play speaks to an audience today in a way that the playwright never fully intended but would have deeply appreciated. Directed by David W. Callander, A PERFECT GANESH is an excellent choice right now for a couple of resonant reasons.
First, American playwright Terrence McNally, once described as “the bard of American theater,” died on March 24, 2020, in Sarasota, Florida, from COVID-19 complications. As the writer of countless legendary original plays and theatrical adaptations, ranging from Ragtime: The Musical and Kiss of the Spider Woman to The Full Monty and Master Class, Terrence McNally was a national treasure and the winner of five Tony Awards. His death at the age of 81 in the first months of the pandemic was a signpost for the tragedies to come.
Second, the story of A PERFECT GANESH is about two wealthy Connecticut WASP matrons traveling to India for a rousing tour of the fabled land. However, their venture to this spiritual marketplace of Hindu Gods and Buddhist shrines is much more than a vacation. Instead, it is a secret, almost unconscious pilgrimage to resolve past wounds kept shrouded in darkness. They hope to find an almost impossible mixture of enlightenment and consolation by fixing these wounds and facing their inner demons.
Indeed, this second reason why A PERFECT GANESH is such an excellent choice right now is that the status of the two women in 1993 reflects the status of our society today. Post the development of the COVID-19 vaccines and the frustratingly slow return to “normality,” it feels like we are all walking in the shoes of these two women. We long for an experience that will revitalize our lives and open new doors. We dream of exotic Gods that will use their incredible powers to make everything okay again.
However, a powerful message that Terrence McNally expresses in the story is that there are no external answers to internal questions. No matter how hard we long for magical potions, there is no way to change the past or predetermine the future. Ultimately, the only power the two women have during their adventures in India resides in the present. Only in the present, for a moment or two, are they able to let go of their prejudices and fears, their biases and suffering, to experience the beauty of being alive today. There is no doubt that Terrence McNally would exchange all his past successes for the rare gift of being alive again. If only for a moment, if they experience anything at all, how deeply the dead must desire even a fleeting taste of life.
We cannot change what has happened, and the two women cannot change very much in the storyline. Although Ganesh, wonderfully played by Mueen Jahan, narrates the story and is present beyond the women’s awareness and comprehension, he does not bow to their wishes or even pay attention to their pain. Able to assume any guise and with a love of games, Ganesh dances between the tragic and the exquisite, the comic and the grotesque, playing with the women’s emotions and reality. These days, it seems too easy to believe that a God is heartless.
In contrasting performances, Kathleen Gray (Katharine) and Mary Allwright (Margaret) bring their characters to life. While Katharine is a bundle of nervous and expectant energy, Margaret is cautious and somewhat overwhelmed. They both navigate challenges with different coping mechanisms, experiencing divergent moments of both conflict and profound connection. Like so many close friends, although they love each other, they cannot help each other.
As a theatre reviewer, I am so happy to return to the stages and watch the extensive talent of this city shine again. At the same time, I know the frustration of these two women, and I long for a transcendent experience that will allow me to move beyond the difficulties of this pandemic. I would be lying if I did not admit that there was some lasting damage. However, I also know that aesthetic experiences like A PERFECT GANESH will help. Although the performance is not perfect and we remain flawed human beings, the effort is a profound step in the right direction.
* From ganeshtree.com —“The son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesh has an elephantine countenance with a curved trunk and big ears, and a huge pot-bellied body of a human being. He is the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. He is also worshipped as the god of education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth.”
Photo Credits: Dennis Stover for Campus Cabaret