Strong cast delivers strong message in ‘Catechism’
July 18, 2005
“Van Gogh, Hemingway, Artaud, Byron, Cocteau, James Dean, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko,” says Ty, the protagonist of Vincent Cardinal’s “The Colorado Catechism,” rattling off a list of prominent artists whose creativity was legendarily tied to their destructive addictions.
But addicts don’t just make for good artists. In Theatre Aspen’s production of “The Colorado Catechism,” which opened Thursday at the Theatre Aspen tent and continues this week, the addicts make good subjects for art.
The addicted in the two-person play are Ty (Rick Stear), a near-famous portrait painter, and Donna (Diana Dresser), a schoolteacher and mother, who meet on the doorstep of a rehab center in Cripple Creek. The relationship starts out with a lie: Donna pretends, none too convincingly, that she is not one of the “drunks,” but a staff member of the Roger Goodman Drug and Alcohol Clinic.
The prevarication sets the tone for the friendship, which stumbles and weaves its way into a romance, and for Cardinal’s play. Addicts, and perhaps especially those in the recovery process, exist in a reality where everything is tenuous. Ty and Donna enter into their relationship cautiously, with adolescent taunting and joking replacing genuine intimacy. Both characters blaze through a dizzying set of mental states ” paranoia, anger, self-pity, sarcasm, holier-than-thou righteousness, despair, and even the occasional flare of optimism ” that shift with the wind. The frequent clinic chimes are meant to call the rehabitants to the next meal or round of group therapy, but as a dramatic device, they signal Ty and Donna’s abrupt mood swings.
Underlying the all-encompassing fragility is the ultimate delicate question: to drink or not to drink? Entwined with that is the related question, to romance or not to romance? For Ty and Donna, who have both been burned by their addictions and in their relationships, the separate ideas of drinking and courting represent almost equal senses of leaping into uncertain waters.
“The Colorado Catechism” is hardly the usual fare of summer theater. There is no golden light ” of either sobriety or love ” at the end of Ty and Donna’s path. And yet we get a strange sort of uplift from their story. As the two become more familiar with each other, gradually sharing their truths, layers of scar and deception peel away. What is revealed isn’t beautiful or comforting, but it is increasingly adult and real and human.
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In its structure, too, “The Colorado Catechism” is austere. The play depends entirely on the actors’ performances and the dialogue Cardinal has given them. The suspense is mostly in the act of revelation of what has already happened; in fact, Ty and Donna’s romance is essentially told by Ty in a long-form flashback. But Cardinal, who in Aspen is directing his play for the first time, brightens the drama with a snappy pace and an unexpected amount of dark humor. The actors give strong performances; Stear, especially, creates a vivid Ty, who is convincingly torn between his weaknesses and his desire to love. The set design, featuring Ty’s large-scale, colorful portraits of Donna, serve to balance the material.
While “The Colorado Catechism” is set firmly in the world of addiction, its ideas can be extracted into the non-addicted realm. Romance is the great golden ring, and even when it is entirely out of grasp, its faint promise carries us through the days of pain.
Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com