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A desperate chorus of voices in Griffin Theatre’s revival of “Balm in Gilead”

Lanford Wilson’s play, “Balm in Gilead,” holds a unique place in the history of Chicago theater. In fact, when actress Laurie Metcalf was feted recently at a Steppenwolf Theatre benefit, she said people still approach her on the street about how they remember her astonishing performance as Darlene in that company’s fabled 1981 production, which was directed by John Malkovich, and earned the theater immense attention when it was remounted in New York in 1984.

Now, more than three decades later, director Jonathan Berry has gathered a cast of 30 actors for the Griffin Theatre production of Wilson’s 1964 play — a work that is primarily a crazy cacophony of the voices of heroin addicts, drug dealers, prostitutes, lesbians, transvestites, criminals and a slew of other desperate and deluded souls who gather in a greasy spoon restaurant in New York. More like a musical score than a standard script — a fugue for the damaged and dispossessed —  the play might not feel quite as revolutionary as it once did. But it remains an intriguing experiment. And if for no other reason, the chance to see Ashleigh LaThrop play Darlene is reason enough to catch it.

LaThrop, a petite, wide-eyed, altogether luminous African American beauty, grabs hold of Darlene’s 20-minute monologue (and every other scene in the play) with such delicacy, ease, innocent sensuality and freshness that by the time it’s all over you realize a star has been born. She is quite different from Metcalf, but magical in her own way.

Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban in the Griffin Theatre production of "Balm in Gilead." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Ashleigh LaThrop and Japhet Balaban in the Griffin Theatre production of “Balm in Gilead.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

‘BALM IN GILEAD’

Recommended

When: Through April 19

Where: Griffin Theatre at

The Den Theater, 1333 N. Milwaukee

Tickets: $28 – $35

Info: (866) 811-4111;

http://www.GriffinTheatre.com

Run time: 2 hours with one intermission

In what is more of a total environment than a traditional set, designer Dan Stratton has taken the second floor space at The Den and turned it into what feels like a curbside, glass-windowed diner complete with counter service and leatherette booths. (The whole thing actually feels more like a place in the lower depths of the pre-gentrified East Village than the Upper West Side of the period, but that’s fine.) A round-the-clock gathering place for junkies, pushers, dreamers, losers, runaways and all the rest, the diner is loud and discordant, with fights and screaming matches repeatedly broken up by the besieged countermen who mostly serve coffee.

One young woman, Babe (Joanne Dubach in an almost entirely silent but brilliant turn) is the junkie who never quite falls off her stool no matter how stoned she might be. Another woman, Ann (the excellent Cyd Blakewell), who came to New York from Minnesota hoping to be a teacher, has become a well-practiced, worn down hooker who lives in a nearby single room occupancy building full of pimps and prostitutes.

Cy Blakewell (left) and Ashleigh LaThrop in the Griffin Theatre production of "Balm in Gilead." (Photo: ....)

Cy Blakewell (left) and Ashleigh LaThrop in the Griffin Theatre production of “Balm in Gilead.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

It also is at the diner that Darlene, a recent arrival from Chicago who is trying to cope with the city, and is already turning tricks, first sees Joe (the deftly implosive Japhet Balaban), a handsome young man she clearly finds attractive. As it happens, he is a wreck. He has begun dealing drugs and gotten himself trapped in the criminal underworld far more deeply than he ever expected. He and Darlene quickly become lovers, but Joe pulls away form her, sensing he is in real danger — pursued by a “Stranger” in a suit (David Cady Jr., who looks as if he were lifted from Hollywood noir files).

Meanwhile, a transvestite (Armand Fields), finally gets a guy to pay for “her” favors. Several self-appointed narrators riff on the general scene, and even make an attempt at a song. A group of lesbians engage in a cat fight. A trio of sassy black singers segues through at a couple of points dressed in royal blue tuxes. And a skeletal, badly beaten junkie makes a pitiful plea for help, but none is given.

Berry is a masterful conductor of all the overlapping interaction, and the production is deftly accented with intriguing lighting effects by Lee Fiskness, fine sound by Matthew Chapman and period-perfect costumes by Mieka Van der Ploeg.

Wilson’s ironic title is drawn from the Biblical “balm of Gilead,” an herb that supposedly possesses universal curative powers. It is a substance notably lacking in this corner of New York, even if conversation, or the briefest experience of something resembling love, might suffice as a substitute.

But then there is LaThrop. And just watching her face as she moves through her astonishing chronicle of a relationship she had in Chicago (including a visit to City Hall for a marriage license), is enough to fill your heart.