Playwrights Arena at Studio/Stage
John Belluso’s Pyretown isn’t a perfect play but, as presented in its west coast debut by Playwrights Arena at studio/stage and with the singular passionate direction contributed by the late playwright’s friend and colleague Diane Rodriguez, it is still a fitting tribute to an enormous talent we all lost far too early.
Belluso, former director of the Center Theatre Group’s Other Voices Project for Disabled Theatre Artists and author of the Taper’s memorable world premiere of The Body of Bourne several seasons ago, died suddenly last year at the age of 35, just as Rodriguez was going into rehearsals for Pyretown’s premiere at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre.
Himself a wheelchair user since age 13, Belluso’s intelligent and often humorous writing centered around disability issues and his legacy lives on gloriously with this, his final play, a touching and smartly crafted exploration into the unconventional relationship between a world-weary welfare mom of 42 and a charismatic 23-year-old paraplegic community college student and “radical leftist web designer” she meets in the waiting room of their mutual HMO.
Despite the obvious differences between Louise and Harry (Dendrie Taylor and Tobias Forrest, who originated his character in the Pittsburgh production), something clicks between these two lonely souls who, faced with highly diverse yet oddly parallel life challenges, forge a special—though not untroubled—friendship that neither expected.
Harry soon wants something more from his new alliance with Louise than a warm handshake, but then again he’s gotten used to disappointments in his life since diving into a shallow pool at the wrong angle at age 16, making him the more resilient and observably less disabled of the pair.
Sadly, however, a future together seems doomed from the onset, particularly considering the ties Louise has with her abusive ex-husband and held down from much extracurricular activity by three screaming kids who, thankfully for us all, never appear onstage. Watching the relationship between Lou and Harry nurture and grow is still fascinating for us, even though the outcome is as predictable as it is heartbreaking.
No one could have written about these simple yet gently heroic people with the understanding and privileged perspective of John Belluso, part of what makes this play such an important one, as Pyretown craftily deals with more than just the obvious romantic issue and the quest to find love. Beyond writing a uniquely personal character-driven story, chronicling Louise and Harry’s bittersweet journey from the acquaintance stage to becoming lovers, there’s the ever-encroaching horror of what it is to be poor and on the demeaning public dole in our once-utopian and now almost irreparably broken society, especially when dealing with the American healthcare system. One has the feeling Belluso not only might have known something about the difficulty of finding a soulmate in our image-conscious culture, but might have also had some firsthand knowledge about dealing with the twisted tangles of governmental bureaucracy.
Under the precision directorial hand of Rodriguez and performing on Victoria Petrovich’s versatile abstract set, Taylor and Forrest couldn’t be better. Together, they create a very real world beyond the limitations of the stage, talking to invisible (again, thankfully) children and social workers we can almost see ourselves, seamlessly creating a whole world around them with few props or set pieces to make it easier.
Taylor finds both the untapped potential and painful vulnerability of Lou, who’s quickly mesmerized by the resilience and worldliness of this handsome young guy in his motorized wheelchair. Harry quickly overpowers the nearly helpless suburban mom’s drab daily existence, introducing her to everything from Dostoyevsky to The Day of the Locust and, as Lou succumbs to his attentions, Taylor is remarkably subtle depicting an emergence from her character’s smothered subsistence as she begins to take control of her own life.
Ironically and coincidentally, like his character, Forrest was injured as a teen in a freak diving accident and also like Harry, lost his mother and found himself basically out on his own at an early age. In the “every cloud” department here, these misfortunes give Forrest a singular perspective, resulting in one of the most genuine and personally transcendent performances seen on any stage this year.
Pyretown is a flawed play and the sadness is that Belluso didn’t live to see this unearthly young performer, with a heart and talent as big as his undefeatable spirit, breath such extraordinary life into this role, which I’m sure would have sent the playwright right back to the drawing board to perfect Act Two, sadly nothing as compelling as the first.
As written, Harry’s poignant monologue ending Act One is the ill-placed but dynamic emotional crescendo of Pyretown, but what Forrest brings to and does with that glorious speech about the need for us all to adapt to our circumstances, as well as Darwinism and the survival of the fittest (“sometimes the fittest isn’t the strongest,” he insists) is something few others would be able to attain so consummately.
As Harry laments about the loss he feels, unable to connect to the earth or ever again feel the sensation of sand sinking between his toes, Belluso’s indelible words are guaranteed to illicit a few tears in the stoniest among us—especially when Forrest then courageously and with virtually no actorish adornment segues into Harry’s difficult declaration about still feeling passion and the desperate need for human contact despite his injury. That monologue alone is worthy of the awards this actor will hopefully reap by year’s end.
No, I’m afraid Pyretown does not have a happy ending, but that’s not the problem here, as happy endings aren’t always what happens in life. See, Pyretown really has no satisfying ending at all, yet as initially cheated as audience members may feel, in the ensuing days after seeing it performed, one realizes somehow that’s okay, too. It’s as though Belluso’s script, like his own young life, wasn’t allowed to be fully realized, leaving this play an even more heartrending testament to what he could have told us about our own lives in the years to come.
Pyretown plays through July 8 at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Av., Los Angeles; for tickets, call 213.627.4473.