Balm in Gilead

By Lanford Wilson; Directed by Peter Jensen

BOTTOM LINE: $20 is a bargain for this immersive play about 1960s New York.

I’ve never seen anything like Balm in Gilead before, in which a large cast is so well orchestrated to create a fully living theatrical piece in front of me. The play takes place in an Upper West Side all-night diner during 1960s New York. Of course, the Upper West Side of the 1960s is very different than what it is today. Back then it was a seedier neighborhood filled with prostitutes, junkies, transvestites and other vagrants. Or at least this is how Lanford Wilson paints it. Balm in Gilead is a symphony of sounds, characters, violence, sexuality, dialogues, monologues and life that has its own movements that fill the stage. Wilson creates a living, breathing diner filled with characters who all have their own stories. The beautiful thing is that, because of Wilson's writing and Peter Jensen's direction, I was able to observe and take in all of the stories being told. Considering there are at least 29 (yes, 29) characters, this is an impressive feat.

With such a large cast, Balm in Gilead does not have a traditional straight narrative. The story focuses primarily on Joe (Jonathan Wilde) and Darlene (Belle Caplis), but as their story gets told the play tunes in and out of the other happenings around the diner. We soon learn that Joe is a drug dealer and Darlene has just arrived to New York from Chicago. Because of her thick Chicago accent which resonates an innocence and kindness that doesn’t belong, Darlene easily stands out. As she becomes more involved with Joe, their mutual attraction develops. Her former life in Chicago bleeds into what is happening at the diner, and turns into one of the longest monologues I’ve ever heard. Without saying too much, this monologue contrasts beautifully to what is happening at the diner. Joe, on the other hand, is the local who is not immune to the troubles and dangers of the neighborhood. Because of what he does to make money, Joe takes on risks with the junkies he deals to, and the people he works for. Wilson's writing makes this all seem very real, and Joe’s pressures become very three-dimensional.

This realness is what makes this play so intriguing; all of the other characters are very much alive and have their own stories. Junkies, transvestites, hookers, lesbians, bums, pimps, hustlers, cooks, waitresses, a manager and even some street singers all have tales that are peppered into the tableau, and are every bit as engaging as the story between Joe and Darlene. At times this seems chaotic, but Jensen's direction makes it work well. Some of these characters have very few lines, but each one fills the space with life. Watching the restaurant manager tally the checks while Darlene talks to a hooker, or a transvestite take off his wig to nurse wounds in the background, or two women lovers drinking coffee while sharing affections, or a hustler selling a piece of probably stolen jewelry, or any of the other little plays happening on stage, is fascinating. And most importantly, this is directed so that all of these scenes weave in and out without losing focus on the main story.

The creative staging and lighting design are a big help here. Balm in Gilead technically takes place in two locations, but the majority of the play happens at the diner. But this does not become tiring because the diner rotates throughout the course of the show. The audience thus sees the same location from a new angle. These simple shifts made me feel like I experienced the diner in every way possible, as if it was a real place. With each turn of the stage, a different angle reveals the same characters in a new way. And the lighting design serves the story well, as it shifts and spotlights different aspects of the moving set. A simple choice of a momentary spotlight here, or a color shift there, greatly adds to the poetry happening on stage.

Balm in Gilead is a poetic piece of art that, with the way the dialogue flows, what physically happens, and the life of the characters, captures a period in time. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The large cast and quality design create something that is truly special and unique to the New York theater scene. You won’t find something like it in such an intimate setting. Go see it.

(Balm in Gilead plays at T. Schreiber Studio, 151 West 26th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues, through December 12, 2010. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $20 and are available at or by calling 212.352.3101.)