The need for compassion is the underlying message of FALLOW, the new drama by award-winning playwright Kenneth Lin, now in its world premiere at People’s Light & Theatre Company in Malvern. The compassion of Lin’s characters is true to the etymology of the word: they “suffer with” each other, and come to understand the other’s pain. They also learn that love, loss, and the struggle to survive in the face of tragedy are shared human experiences that supersede any differences of background or socio-economic status. And there are many more insights in this beautiful, complex, profound production. Using bee colonies as a metaphor for human society, the play raises serious issues about identity, about nature versus nurture, the privileged versus the downtrodden, and the active versus the contemplative life. It skillfully captures the yin and yang of existence in 21st-century America, with its diversity, and its resultant clashes.
Lin’s characters are not stereotypes; they are three-dimensional human beings with whom we can empathize through the actors’ committed performances. Robert Montano as Happy Lugo (a hard-working Mexican immigrant determined to make the best out of life) and Mary Elizabeth Scallen (as Elizabeth Hazzard Hayes, the wealthy New England Congressman’s daughter who, by her own admission, has never worked a day in her life) bring depth, humor, passion, and sensitivity to their roles, making us care about these people and the plights they endure. They progressively reveal secrets and surprises about themselves as they join together on a road trip through rural California to confront the convicted killers of Elizabeth’s son Aaron, murdered after foresaking his Ivy-League education to experience life as a beekeeper and migrant farm worker.
Throughout the play, Aaron–performed with a spirit of youthful idealism by George Olesky–appears on stage to read the unsent letters he wrote to his mother. They are articulate and analytical, betraying his advantaged academic background, and his determination to find both himself and the real America. Lin subtly reveals the classism that divides our country in such telling observations as Happy using Aaron’s valuable stamp collection for postage, and the Hayes’s elitist comprehension of the arcane messages of “La Cucaracha” and “The Jabberwocky,” while Happy just finds pleasure in their “silly words.”
The production’s artistic design is masterful. Aaron’s transformation from Cornell University student to sun-darkened migrant worker is accomplished with effective costumes, wigs, facial hair, and body make-up by Jessica Ford and Dave Bova. Sets by Wilson Chin and lighting by Joshua Schulman expertly create the perfect ambiance for the changing locales, including an overheated cab and a fertile field of strawberries.
FALLOW is a rich and engaging work about seeing life through the eyes of “the other” and finding the common emotions that define us all as human. It’s about writing with meaning and universality, not “just silly words.”
Written by Kenneth Lin
Directed by Jackson Gay
January 11–February 5, 2012
People’s Light & Theatre Company
39 Conestoga Road
Malvern, PA 19355