There are no easy answers in When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable) but plenty of questions to keep a theatergoer's mind buzzing for a quite a while.
That would be the hallmark of a Sam Shepard play, with its challenging language and mysterious message. American Stage's production of Green, written by Shepard and his longtime collaborator, the late Joseph Chaikin, takes the audience on a journey, though where is up to the individual. In other words, be prepared to ponder love and loss; redemption and rejuvenation; and most of all, perception.
Like I said, this one isn't easy. Interesting, yes. A breezy night at the theater? Hardly.
Michael Edwards, last seen in the Tampa Bay area in American Stage's 2011 production of August: Osage County, plays an old man who once traveled the world as a chef, preparing sumptuous feasts and eating just as luxuriously. He is now on death row for a curious murder. Over the course of the 70-minute one-act play, he is visited eight times by a newspaper reporter, played hauntingly by Amanda Collins, who wants to write his story. At least that's what she tells him. Like him, she has spent her life searching for someone.
Her motive morphs into something of a personal quest — halfway through the play she puts down her reporter's notebook — and the pair dance (or maybe fence?) around the spare prison cell, trading the lead position several times. It's a duet that's tender in moments and rancorous at others, but always thought-provoking if occasionally disconnected. Collins, who was in American Stage's An Ideal Husband in 2011, is revelatory in her emotion-spanning performance. At the outset, she is the one expected to remain in control, to be the steady guide. But she is hurting more than the old man, who has lived a full, if ultimately misguided, life.
Edwards, with impossibly blue flashing eyes, plays the old man with willful disobedience and just the right touch of wistfulness and misplaced anger. He keeps us at arm's length then grabs us with an outstretched hand, pulling us into his strange world, where a generations-old grudge has resulted in his incarceration.
We know what will become of the old man, but Collins plays the wounded bird so well that she is the one who evokes our sympathies. She speaks of her love for aromatic mangoes and earthy mushrooms, and the old man's poetic speeches about preparing both unite them in longing and pleasurable pursuits.
Food is the third character on stage, used metaphorically to encourage us to look beyond the surface, or under the peel. The flesh of the mango needs coaxing and great care "to separate it from its original hide," the old man says. Even in their adversarial roles, Edwards and Collins find each other's soft, ripe spot beneath their tough exteriors.
Green is a cerebral play not particularly helped by the staging in this production, directed by Todd Olson. Video images on one side of the stage meant to transport us from the prison to a restaurant or a roiling river are distracting. They take us out of the characters' heads where we need to be. Spotlights on the actors when they have "solos" directed toward the audience are unnecessarily sharp. Music meant to punctuate emotion is overbearing at times.
When read, Shepard's lyricism is intoxicating. It's easy, even gratifying, to get sucked into his up-is-down and down-is-up world where nothing is tied up with a pretty bow. The words are the thing, which may be why Green, which premiered in 1996, isn't staged much. It's a challenging choice for American Stage, but one that should be applauded and supported, albeit with thinking caps on.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.