Family connections, divisions in Zinn’s ‘Venus’
WELLFLEET — Jeff Zinn, the artistic director of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, has found a movingly appropriate way to honor the memory of his father, Howard Zinn: by giving the late author-activist-scholar’s play “Daughter of Venus’’ a production that makes its many virtues shine.
Suffolk University and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre presented the play in January 2009 as part of a yearlong celebration of Howard Zinn’s life and work, but that production updated the action from its original 1980s setting to the present. In doing so, it made a hash of logic and chronology and also diluted the specificity of the play’s immediate concerns — the nuclear arms race and the citizens’ movement protesting it — without really strengthening its deeper theme, the complicated relationship between personal and political acts.
Now, though, Zinn the younger has restored the original script (while maintaining a few of the edits that, he says, smoothed the action), and it’s remarkable how much better “Daughter of Venus’’ works in this form. In Jeff Zinn’s fluid, naturalistic staging at WHAT (on an evocatively academic-homey set by Ji-Youn Chang), the play comes across as a quick-witted and emotionally complex study of a family, and a world, in crisis. For admirers of Howard Zinn’s passionate politics, and indeed for anyone interested in art that engages with the political world, it’s worth the trip to Wellfleet.
“Daughter of Venus’’ conjures up the nuclear family of a nuclear physicist. Paolo Matteotti was involved with the early tests of atomic devices at Los Alamos, N.M., until he decided that even his nonmilitary work — testing the radiation levels to determine safety — was immoral because it helped the government keep developing nuclear weapons. His misgivings were only compounded when his son, Jamie, was born with possibly related neurological issues, exacerbating the tensions between Paolo and his wife, Lucy, over his work.
All this is back story, though. Now Jamie is a young adult, as is his sister, Aramintha. The play opens with her return from Guatemala, filled with political fire — and fury at her father, because her mother has tried to kill herself and is in a psychiatric hospital. Into this fraught scene enters John Lendl, a former colleague of Paolo who now works for the Rand Corp. and wants to lure Paolo back into arms-related research.
“Daughter of Venus’’ is still not a perfect play. It has talky stretches, moments when the characters are too overtly lecturing the audience rather than living in the story. And Lendl fits awkwardly into the action. But Jeff Zinn glides over these rough spots as best he can, and he has helped himself immeasurably by casting actors who can make just about anything fly.
Stephen Russell reprises his work as Lendl, but here he’s more subtle, less cartoonish, in his manipulative arguments. We’re still never in any doubt about where the playwright’s sympathies lie — against Lendl and his kind — and the “bad guy’s’’ abrupt entrance and his confrontation with Aramintha still feel forced. But at least Russell makes Lendl into a human being, one whose methods and principles are suspect but who clearly feels himself to be driven by honorable motives.
It’s Richard McElvain, though, who truly shows what a difference a single actor can make to a play. You might not cast McElvain as an Italian Jewish nuclear physicist, but his performance here proves how right Zinn was to do it. His Paolo moves from academic abstraction to personal passion with wit and agility; he’s funny, touching, and a little sad as he attempts to bridge the gap between his own pragmatic resistance to nuclear weapons and his daughter’s more fiery, less reasoned response.
As Aramintha, Poornima Kirby is equally nuanced. She lets us see both the intensity and the immaturity of this young woman’s arguments; we can be with her emotionally, even as we’re sharing her father’s amusement at her naivete. The interactions between them now manage to carry the thematic weight of the playwright’s arguments while also coming across as familiar, familial, and real.
Elizabeth Atkeson is occasionally stiff as Lucy, the wife we see only in flashbacks, but she also has the least developed role to work with. As for the damaged son, Jamie, Alex Pollock (who also appeared in the earlier production) is just terrific: sweet, confused, and with a specificity of movement and expression that indicates a depth of research and observation on the actor’s part. He never falls into cliche or stereotype, and his Jamie is memorably funny, too.
Howard Zinn’s life showed us how one person can make a difference. His play, especially in his son’s production of it, shows us what making a difference can cost — and why, even so, we keep wanting to try.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.