Returning to India: Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater restages a classic
Among the many pleasures to be found in the writing of playwright Terrence McNally (“Love! Valour! Compassion!” “Master Class,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”) is the way he always allows his primary characters to have second chances. An opportunity to redress a past error, take one more creaky crack at love, repair a broken friendship or revisit a past event or place in hopes of gaining some spiritual or emotional closure.
So, in a way, it is absolutely appropriate that actors Elly Lichenstein and Laura Jorgensen, with director Michael Fontaine, are returning to a play they staged together at Cinnabar Theater in April of 2000. Now 19 years later, the trio are bringing back Terrence McNally’s “A Perfect Ganesh,” a play about two middle-aged women, lifelong friends, each hoping to find a bit of peace while touring India under the watchful eye of a friendly tour-guide who just might be the Hindu deity Ganesha, god of art, wisdom and new beginnings.
“We are having such a magnificent time revisiting this beautiful work with 19 years of living to add to the mix,” notes Lichenstein. “Plus two new cast members, a re-visioning of the set, a teensy bit of wisdom from each of us old-timers, and the like.”
“A Perfect Ganesh” is a four-person play, the primary characters being the well-to-do world travelers Katherine Brynne (Lichenstein) and Margaret Civil (Jorgensen) and the shape-shifting elephant-headed Ganesha (Heren Patel). In the role identified as The Man, Petaluma’s John Browning plays a number of people the women encounter along the way.
Jorgensen is also well known to Cinnabar audiences, having appeared in several shows there over the years. Most recently, she was in the opera-and-aging comedy “Quartet.” Previously, she appeared in “Driving Miss Daisy,” “On the Verge,” “The Clean House,” ”We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay,” as well as the world premieres of “Queer Theory” and “Glamour” by John O’Keefe.
Browning, another Cinnabar veteran, has been seen there in productions of “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Arcadia” and “Time Stands Still.” For Patel, this marks his Cinnabar debut. A graduate of San Francisco State University, his recent roles include playing the real-life mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in “Partition,” at Indra’s Net Theater, and appearances in Marin Onstage’s “Ideation,” Bay Area Children’s Theater’s “Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site” and CustomMade Theatre’s “Of Serpents and Sea Spray.”
As one cast member who truly hopes to someday live in India, Patel writes, “I feel super duper blessed to get to play one of India’s most beloved and favorite deities.” He hints that any human imperfections he might bring to the role will be left up to Ganesha to help with, since the much-revered god is well known, after all, as the remover of obstacles.
McNally’s cheeky little mystery - with an onion-like plot that gradually reveals its secrets rather than building toward them through a more theatrically typical series of gradually mounting tensions - had its original premiere off-Broadway in 1993. “A Perfect Ganesh” was nominated in 1994 alongside Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” and Jane Martin’s “Keely and Du” for a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. As fate would have it, the prize that year went to “Three Tall Women.”
But ever since, McNally’s charmingly enigmatic comedy-drama has become a popular staple at theater companies around the world. In 2009, a Belgian theater company named JudasTheaterproducties adapted it into a musical production.
It certainly means something that Cinnabar is returning to this play after nearly 20 years.
In the company’s long history in Petaluma, including the commissioning and development of many new plays, it’s been rare for one show to be given and second or third staging. The few exceptions to the rule include Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” in 2005 and 2012, and Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” the latter staged last year and once previously in 2004.
When announcing Cinnabar’s 2018/2019 season at a special event last year, Lichenstein revealed that playing Katherine in 2000 was one of her favorite onstage experiences.
“Some roles are just juicier than others,” she said at the time, “and this one - this enture play actually - has a whole lot of juice.”