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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Divine comedy humorous and revealing

A ‘Perfect’ play for traveling to India … without the trans-Atlantic flight

By Leigh E. Rich

Although it’s populated with 813 million people, many Westerners know little, let alone understand, the exotic and enigmatic land called India. Regardless, it entices millions of tourists every year, from those searching for enlightenment to those needing to heal. Playwright Terrance McNally circumvents the 18-hour, trans-Atlantic flight and brings India to the West in “A Perfect Ganesh,” Arizona Theatre Company’s current production. While the play delves into weighty issues such as racism and death, McNally’s humor and the ATC’s talented cast pleasantly combine the bitter and the sweet and produce a turbulent-free ride.

McNally’s play recounts two Connecticut women’s passage through India, guided by the Hindu god Ganesha (David Paul Francis). Both women desire closure of the deep-cut tragedies they have experienced in their “little, insignificant, magnificent lives.” Ditching their husbands and their annual Caribbean island vacations, Katharine Brynne (Penelope Windust) and Margaret Civil (Betsy Palmer) purposely travel to India because Brynne “heard it could heal.”

Both veteran actors of stage and screen, Palmer and Windust innervate McNally’s typically Western women. The aptly named Civil embodies the martyr—she packs her troubles neatly away so as to not disturb anyone else’s happiness. Her flamboyant and adventurous counterpart, on the contrary, wants to indulge in life but is held back by the (literal) baggage she carries on stage.

“We travel,” Brynne tells Civil, “but we don’t go anywhere.”

Their journey is a spiritual one. India has long been viewed by the West as the seat of “otherness.” It is a vastly different realm of harsh realities and insurmountable beauty—“too much poverty, too much disease, too much everything.” From its language and religion to its social organization, the “other” (to a Westerner) is everywhere. While Civil wants to see India her way (“from a comfortable seat and somewhat at a distance”), Brynne realizes that we often need “upsetting” before renewal and rebirth can occur.

The play itself is surreal. In an almost deus ex machina fashion, Ganesha weaves his way into the journey—both the audience’s and Civil and Brynne’s. Ralph Funicello’s set design fluidly transforms, from airports and hotel rooms to Bombay and the Ganges. Pristine and white, it is a stage fit for a god.

Ganesha, a large, jovial, elephant-headed god who rides a rat, was “created out of a mother’s loneliness.” He embodies McNally’s main theme that “the world is full of opposites that exist peacefully side by side.” Tragedy, like joy, must be embraced (much like the self and the other) in order to lead complete lives. So-called best friends Civil and Brynne realize they don’t know each other because they protect one another from their tragic experiences. But it is the emotional and cathartic bond in revealing these stories “that makes you like someone.”

McNally juxtaposes Ganesha’s family struggles (as son to Hindu gods Shiva and Parvati) with those of Brynne and Civil. They are all stories of mothers losing and finally reconciling with their sons, thus demonstrating that there is a universality among people who appear to be opposites.

Both Francis’ Ganesha and actor John Walcutt’s talented portrayal of all of the men (son, husband, friend) that these two women know close the great “us versus them” chasm we often reify in the West. Francis and Walcutt step into the proverbial shoes of men and women from all over the world. It is both humorous and revealing at once. While India remains quite different and misunderstood, McNally proposes that it is not as foreign as we believe.

Most importantly, McNally honestly conveys the ultimate human commonality: “Sooner or later… (We) lose everything.” And while Ganesha facilitates the women’s acceptance of life’s paradoxical tenuousness, McNally gives his characters the power to heal themselves. One need not travel to India but merely look inside for salvation.

As Ganesha tells Mrs. Brynne, “Foolish woman, you are holding a god in your arms.”

Rich, L. E. (1996, April 5). Divine comedy humorous and revealing. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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