GELFAND’S WORLD--Is 54 years too soon? What if we're talking about a dramatized love story between Lee Harvey Oswald and his wife-to-be Marina?
Of all the tragic relationships and dysfunctional marriages, was this the one to showcase on an American stage, even this many years later? The playwright of Alik and a hardy cast at the Wende Museum clearly think that it is. Let's consider their argument, which is, in essence, the play itself and their performance.
The word Alik is the nickname that the Russians gave Lee Harvey Oswald, and it's what he called himself during the time he spent as an American defector trying to live life as a communist in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
Alik is also the title that Playwright Julio Vera has chosen for his work, now being performed at the Wende Museum in Culver City and then moving to the Elysium Conservatory Theatre in San Pedro. It is the story of Lee and Marina from the time that they met in the city of Minsk until the day they left for the United States.
If you are going to write about a relationship between Lee and Marina, you have to include something about Lee. This play is partially about Oswald (played effectively by Justin Powell) during his Russian years. Over the course of the play, Oswald's inner demons slowly unravel. We learn of a difficult relationship with an older brother, his accumulating fear -- not unreasonable -- that the KGB is spying on him, and the tortured relationship he had suffered with his truly toxic mother, Marguerite Oswald (played to scary effect by Michele Schultz).
But more than anything else, this play unfolds as the story of Marina Oswald, played by newcomer Lauren Fordinal in a strong yet attractive performance. She is a sympathetic character who became embroiled in a world shaking event and in real life has been trying to keep a low profile ever since. In the play we see her as the young, attractive girl who is wooed by this exotic fellow Oswald, an American who went to Russia to live. In the Cold War years of the 1960s, Russians were apparently aware that some of their countrymen managed to defect to the U.S., but the idea of an American defecting to the USSR was an obvious curiosity. Why would anyone want to do that?
Marina is the protagonist who emerges over the course of the play, and at this level, we have a worthy subject for a dramatic piece. At the beginning, Marina is a young woman who is living the life of the Soviet citizen -- that is to say, she deals with food shortages, lack of consumer luxuries, and a reality that life is difficult and the authorities are not to be trusted. She and her close friends are matter-of-fact about their cynical attitudes towards the state and towards human relationships. She has a strong relationship with Larissa (Colleen Greenhalgh) who finds humorous irony in the nature of men in general. If Alik is strange, it's as much that he is a man as that he is an American.
The playwright explained that he has been interested in this topic for a couple of decades. He further explained that the play is based on verifiable historical facts. He took the mother's lines directly from her testimony to the Warren Commission. Considering how tendentious the subject of the JFK assassination is even now, this was a wise course of action. In any case, Vera has fashioned a compelling drama that worked for the audience on opening night.
We should also credit Cassandra Ambe, who has directed this play ably, finding the inner Marina and propelling the story arc along the way.
The play begins in an apartment in Minsk in the early 1960s. Oswald has chanced to meet Marina at a dance and is enchanted with her, but this is no Hollywood style"meet cute." It is an old fashioned Soviet courtship, albeit a brief one. They marry, have their moments of joy and later their hours of difficulty.
She cannot understand why Oswald would want to abandon America for life in the Soviet Union. This underlying question and various cues (a collection of letters from the U.S. that he refuses to explain) add to her suspicions.
On the other side of the relationship, Oswald is obviously carried away with some version of idealism. In one of his excited moods, he explains his desire to fuse socialism and capitalism in a way that will bring out the best of each.
The audience, coming from the post-assassination era, understands that we are to take this as symptomatology, just as we treat Oswald's enthusiastic rant to Marina that they will do great things together.
Over the course of the play, we see Oswald carrying on conversations with his mother and brother Robert. We come to understand that these are his bad dreams, or possibly even episodic delusional states.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of difficulties for Marina.
At the surface level, they are the result of her experiencing Oswald's increasing number of dreams and emotional crises that leave him curled up whimpering.
These episodes stem from secrets that Oswald carries with him, memories that are gradually pried from him by Marina and her Russian friends. We learn that at one point in his boyhood, he was driven to brandish a knife at his mother. He ended up in a care facility in New York, where the staff began to piece together the story.
In the play Alik, the mother is portrayed as manipulative and prone to exaggeration, wrapped up in herself and insensitive to the emotional needs of her children. The fact that is brought out by a social worker (Mariah Kirstie) at the juvenile care facility is that the mother continued to give her sons baths even when they were eleven years old. When confronted with this accusation, the mother spins it off as inconsequential. It is obvious that to Lee, it was a humiliation and a torment, the experience that caused him to defend himself emotionally with the knife.
The playwright explained that the mother is portrayed accurately. Her lines were taken directly from her testimony in front of the Warren Commission. The fact that Marguerite Oswald was something of a monster is verified in writings by Steve North, who states, "She was manipulative, abrasive, and mercenary to a fault. To know his mother was to feel some small sympathy for Lee Harvey Oswald."
In the play, she is shown as sexually traumatizing her son. The effect of such abuse is an old story in psychiatric history.
Justin Powell acts the love smitten young man in an exuberant way that sets him off from the other cast members who are playing the more introverted Russians. He is quite convincing in his moments of near insanity, grabbing the audience as he moans and sobs. Lauren Fordinal plays off Powell's emotionality in a quiet way that is more emotionally grounded. Marina too, we learn, has had a difficult childhood and a stressful life, but she represents a cultural imperative to keep it under tighter rein.
Fordinal was added to the cast only about a month ago, replacing the previous actress. The fact that she had to learn the part and develop the character in this short period of time makes her engaging performance all the more remarkable.
Together, Powell and Fordinal allow the story to build slowly from courtship to concern to arguing. It doesn't hurt that the two can live up to the images in the play's lines, in which they describe each other's looks in superlatives.
In the end (of the play, anyway), Marina figures out that she has been alone in life for a long time, and the best thing that humans do is to care for each other. She will travel with Alik, now Lee Harvey Oswald once more, and look after him. It is a moment of tempered optimism.
For the audience, this is what you might describe as mixed emotions.
The other six members of the cast worked well with Powell and Fordinal. Ryan Hughes is effective as Lee's factory worker friend Pavel. He looks the part. Near the end of the play, he reveals that the KGB has had him reporting on Oswald from the very beginning. He tries to convince Oswald that it is possible to be an informer and a friend -- and anyway, he said only good things about Oswald to the authorities.
Tory Castillo plays a small but important part as Lee's former Intourist guide who discovered his suicide attempt back in his Moscow days and lets us know that Oswald did time in a psychiatric hospital before being sent to Minsk. Ricardo Diaz is Oswald's brother Robert, a character who is there to provide backstory and to flesh out the plot point that Oswald, even in his Soviet visit, has decided to move back to America and take Marina with him.
I don't know if this is the real Marina Oswald (long since remarried and still living in Texas), but the drama plays convincingly and the audience was obviously moved. This then is the answer to the question of whether this play was worth doing on an American stage. For this audience and these performers, it worked.
Whether there is any deeper lesson is an exercise to be left to the audience. It is only coincidence that this play opened at the exact moment in which the American public is once again obsessed with gun violence. Perhaps it is only coincidence that Oswald's life history -- the picked-on, unhappy loner -- is similar to other infamous killers of recent experience. Or perhaps not.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])