There are times when works of art find greater relevance due to the political environment in which they are experienced. Theatre Unlocked's production of Wallace Shawn's Aunt Dan and Lemon is just one of those occasions. In his rumination on the nature of power — both the military power of a State over the many lives it can choose to destroy, and the power of one individual over another in terms of love, friendship and persuasion — Shawn writes masterful dialogue which has its own power to disorientate and discomfort. He uses Henry Kissinger and the Vietnam War as a vehicle to bring out this discussion, but George Bush and Iraq could be cleanly substituted for the same effect.
The 'Lemon' in the title is actually the narrator (Alyssa Kaye) for the piece, a woman of unknown age who seems old due to her sickness and isolation from the world. But she also possesses the naiveté of someone very young; indeed, she tells us that she doesn't get out much any more, that instead she prefers to live in the memories of her youth, and not the things in life she has done, but those who have had an influence on her. Through flashbacks, we meet Lemon's parents: her father (Josh Lanza), who seems perpetually stressed out, and her mother (Courtney Lewin), who is perhaps too sensitive for this world. Aunt Dan, or Danielle (Katy Kingsbery), is a close friend of theirs who spends a lot of time at the house. Something happens, however, and Aunt Dan distances herself from the parents and instead only comes over to tell stories to the eleven-year-old Lemon.
Aunt Dan's stories are full of life-affirming joy and passion, and we see why the young impressionable Lemon is taken with her. Near the middle of the play, we find out why Dan chooses to spend her time with Lemon rather than her parents. In a flashback, Dan and Lemon's mother have a long row about politics. You see, Dan has chosen to idolize Henry Kissinger, and tries to persuade Lemon's mother that Kissinger is much like a Christ-figure, sacrificing happiness in his own life to fight a war he doesn't want to fight for the good of his country and its citizens. Lemon's mother tries to respectfully disagree, but is shouted down by the charismatic and passionate Dan. Just as intensely as we see the anger in Dan's face, we see the deep sadness in the mother, who feels a friendship slipping away due to a difference of political opinion.
Do political beliefs matter enough to end a friendship over? The play seems to answer this question in part due to Dan's influence on Lemon. Her speeches about Kissinger and her tales of the moral choices of Dan's friends seem to have shaped Lemon's world view into a shocking brand of nihilism that Lemon embraces at the end of the play. But it would be far too easy to see this as just cause and effect. One leaves this play not with a sense of certainty about one's own beliefs, but rather a discomfort at how easy it is to slip philosophically from the notion of a good war to an acceptance that war is good.
This play could easily lose its impact if not done properly. The acting, especially by the principals, is excellent. The director, Jake Herriman, deserves praise for guiding them to these performances. The production design is rather minimal, but works for the feeling of the piece. Wallace Shawn is a believer that theater should be about discomfort — challenging the actors and audience to break out of their normalcy bubbles. So the small space at the Penny Cafe, where the audience essentially sits within a few feet of the actors, is in keeping with Shawn's intent. But because there are only a few seats for each performance, reserve a space ahead of time. And do reserve a space: now is the time for challenging theater, now is the time to break out of our normalcy and ponder why politics really matter.