LIKE other theater troupes in the country, the Denver Center Theatre Company is developing new plays - always risky and expensive, but badly needed if the theater is going to live on as a viable art form. Two of the three new plays just ending rival anything at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., last spring.
The best of the three, if the most modest, is Lydia Stryk's "Monte Carlo." Its glamorous title belies its humble story about an elderly, working-class English woman who cares for her fragile mother. When Daisy wins the lottery, she quits her job at the factory. Friends seek her help.
Daisy's own dreams lie beyond her squalid flat, and she takes her old mum to the Riviera. The older lady's complaints cease, and Daisy makes a painful discovery. This poignant little play is about mother-daughter relations, growing old with spirit, and the complexity of human relationships.
Terrific dialogue, brilliant performances by Georgine Hall and Frances Ingalls as Daisy and Mum, and a compassionate view of age and human nature kept the viewer invested in the outcome. Stryk sometimes falters when it comes to grappling with the meaning of Daisy's life. Yet there is some sense of the blessing her life has been and might still be because Daisy is supremely patient. The viewer comes away with an experience of a simple life lived in kindness.
"The Living" by Anthony Clarvoe is a far more ambitious, full-scale play. Beautifully written, directed and acted, "The Living" nevertheless seemed a bit ponderous, its humanism a bit tired. Based on diaries and official documents, the story unfolds in London in 1665, during an outbreak of the Black Plague. Everyone who can afford to leaves London for the country. But of those who stay, a few act heroically to help each other.
A young widow tries to escape London to continue to support her family. Turned back by frightened villagers, she returns to find her family has perished. The mayor of the city does what little good he can, keeps the order as best he can. A doctor stays behind to care for the sick. But the most interesting character is a lay scientist who studies statistics and shows people what can be learned from the science of numbers. "If you look at the numbers they tell you a story," he says. "One indication of the coming of plague is the coming of lies."
Political expediency denies the onslaught of disaster when everyone is too afraid to face the truth. It might as well have been about Nazi Germany or Mao's Cultural Revolution or even the McCarthy hearings, because the plague is a metaphor for any human calamity in which people have to be responsible to each other.
It's a hard night in the theater, with all the suffering on stage. Nevertheless, there is some light of understanding cast on the human condition in this play. That light concerns the simple heroism of people who do not abandon their fellows in the dark hours.
The productions were all first rate. Even the third play, a tiresome musical called "Bon Voyage" by Jeffrey Hatcher, with music and lyrics by the late Noel Coward, received a dazzling production. But somehow, that 1930's urbanity works only in movies made in that period.