The Dinosaur Within
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 25, 2002
The Dinosaur Within: Epic Ode to Letting GoState Theater, through February 10
Running Time: 2 hrs, 20 min
The faded film star has lost her glamour, her career, and her one great love, who gave her a child and might have given her a purpose in life beyond the camera. The young man from Australia, who is a huge fan of the faded film star, has lost two brothers to the racism and poverty that crushes his people, the aborigines. The aboriginal shaman, who is father to the young man, has lost three sons -- two to suicide, one to America -- and the dinosaur tracks that are his link to his "creative ancestors," shapers of the world. The journalist, who wrote a newspaper story about the theft of the dinosaur tracks, has lost his son, a boy who disappeared one day while riding his bicycle home from school. The daughter of the faded film star, who once had the journalist for a teacher and wants to find the missing dinosaur tracks, has lost her connection to her mother and perhaps her purpose in life.
In The Dinosaur Within, playwright John Walch has crafted a daisy chain of loss, a ring of absence that spans continents and decades to link people of vastly different worlds, the Land of the Songlines and the City of Angels, the Dream Factory and the Dreamtime. It's to show how we as humans too often deal with a traumatic loss: taking it into ourselves and holding on to it and holding onto it for years, until it fossilizes inside us and we become rigid, unable to move forward. No matter where we live or who we are, no matter how exalted or obscure our lives, Walch tells us, clinging to a loss keeps us from changing, from growing, from living in the world. He has penned an epic ode to the necessity of letting go.
The script has garnered considerable national attention -- on hand opening night was a representative of the Kennedy Center, which helped fund the play's premiere production to the tune of $40,000 -- and watching the play in performance, it isn't difficult to see why. Its scope is broad, encompassing global cultures and geologic time. It has at its heart a conventional narrative -- three families confronting loss -- which it handles unconventionally, wandering across space and time, mingling the real and the unreal. It sets up a complex series of overlapping relationships and interweaves them deftly. It has a thematic point of view as clear as rainwater and a wealth of compassion and wisdom where human behavior is concerned. The Dinosaur Within is a big play by a talented and skilled young playwright.
And yet it doesn't feel so big -- big as in the sense of monumental, imposing -- in the State Theater Company production. Walch stays focused on the personal, on the individual sorrows and dreams of his characters, such that their forays into the cosmic -- the film star conversing with her younger self on video, the journalist being visited by his missing son, the shaman and the film star meeting in the dreamtime -- feel natural, matter-of-fact. It's all handled so smoothly, by Walch, by director Michael Breault, and by a winning cast.
Karen Kuykendall and Andrea Osborn are splendidly in sync as the older and younger versions of Hollywood star Honey Wells. They share that presence stars have, that sense of entitlement to attention, and a way of speaking, swirling language in their mouths like gin in a martini glass, then letting the lines spill forth in an intoxicating stream. Charles Stransky's journalist has a cheerfully distracted air when dealing with anything other than his missing boy and a manic joy when digging up clues to his son's history, John Minnich, as the missing boy Tommy, fills us in on the history of the dinosaurs with the sly smile of a kid bearing secret knowledge. Leon Addison Brown's smile is gentler, one that projects of wisdom gained through age and experience, but he is a kindred spirit to Tommy, a bearer of secret knowledge that he yearns to pass on. Lameece Isaaq and Eric Abrams are kindred spirits, too, radiating a like energy, the passion of young people on a quest for identity, his from Australia to America, hers just the reverse. And Mary Agen Cox and Ron Berry spin through an array of supporting roles with captivating humor and grace.
Walch has said the play at one point took more than four hours to read. He has clearly streamlined it into a lean, tight drama that propels us through the maze of stories briskly and smoothly. But in paring away so much, he has left the play's metaphors exposed, like bones in a rocky bed, leaving the audience little to discover on its own. That the result is still moving is a testament to how well crafted both his script and this production are. But now that the script is so tight, it would nice to see him let it breathe, to give the core characters a little more time to interact and the metaphors a place to hide.
As kids, a lot of us dreamed of being paleontologists, unearthing bones of the great beasts of the past. Most thought we had abandoned those dreams, but here John Walch shows us that we are all paleontologists, that we must be, for we can't be fully human unless we dig out the dinosaurs buried within us.