Onstage whimsy can curdle faster than a carton of milk left outside on a July afternoon in Houston. After the second scene of In the Garden of Live Flowers, a fantastical take on the life of environmentalist author Rachel Carson, wild insects from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland buzz and screech across the stage. There's a gnat, a Bread & Butterfly, a dragonfly, a caterpillar and even the White Rabbit. It's like a children's theater nightmare come painfully alive, and you pray for a noxious spritz of DDT to waft through Main Street Theater. But then, curiouser and curiouser, this "Fantasia on Rachel Carson's Silent Spring," as writers Attilio Favorini and Lynne Conner's subtitle states, begins to beguile us with its hallucinogenic mood. "Fantasia" isn't the right word to describe what's going on in this play. "Phantasmagoric" would be correct.
A recurrent surreal dream follows Carson throughout the play. We see her on a gurney in a hospital gown. "It's time," she says ominously. The male doctor, flicking ash from a cigarette, stares at her X-ray. "How long?" she asks. "You're healing well," the doctor says offhandedly. "I have no time for this," she says with impatience. And another scene starts.
Each time the dream occurs, we're given more information, until we finally realize that Carson's mastectomy for breast cancer was not successful, and with the disease's return, she's doomed. She wants time to finish her greatest work, Silent Spring, the book that, as in-the-know audience members realize, will become an international best-seller and prompt the start of the modern environmental movement.
In the Garden of Live Flowers
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard
Through May 2; 713-524-6706
In Silent Spring, the real-life Carson unveiled the dangers of the wide-cast spraying of pesticides, especially DDT, the most virulent synthetic chemical yet brewed at the time. Needless to say, the chemical industry and many prominent scientists on its payroll were incensed and went into overdrive to discredit her -- she was a woman; she was unmarried and thus probably hysterical; she used faulty statistics. They threw everything at her but the truth.
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The play covers a lot of ground: Carson's battles with corporate power; her enlightening love of nature; her growing celebrity status; the burden of supporting her immediate (and not so immediate) family; her relationship with the married Dorothy Freeman; her youthful fascination with Lewis Carroll's Alice. It's told chronologically using passages selected from her writings. However, except for the quiet, thoughtful time she spends with Dorothy, each scene is given some surreal eccentricity, as if Carroll, the Saturday Night Live team and Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove co-wrote the play.
And in fact, science is literally given Strangelove treatment with a brilliant Peter Sellers imitation by Fritz Dickmann as a scientist employed by the chemical companies. He has the requisite high-pitched German accent and uncontrollable wayward arm and a wheelchair that keeps bumping into the set. In a later scene, the chemical company executives and their public relations manager play golf as they discuss Carson, her dangerous theories and how to destroy her. They're attacked by wasps in dominatrix drag -- the scene is as much a comment on how men think of women in power as an over-the-top parody of the pesticides' effects on the food chain.
Contrary to what one might expect, these disparate elements work together fairly well, giving the play a unique tone, to say the least, as it bounces from naturalism to expressionism to parody and back again. The production's evocative sound design by Shawn St. John, the aquamarine tones smeared throughout the cutout sets by Igor Karash and the gamut of historical costuming by Ruth Dentel smooth out the bumps on this ecological yellow brick road. Setting the atmosphere are the calming sound of lapping waves and the pages of Alice in Wonderland flying overhead like shore birds.
Shannon Emerick enlivens the schoolmarmish character of Carson, portraying her loving human heart and survivor's determined courage. She captures Carson's enthrallment with the world around her and her willingness to sacrifice for her cause; and, like the beloved writer herself, she displays a quiet yet powerful bearing. Leigh Anne Wuest plays both Alice and Dorothy, and though she's much too old for Lewis Carroll, she could charm the brilliant old lecher nonetheless. The scenes between Wuest's Dorothy and Carson are understated, written in a subtle shade so as not to scare the children, I suppose. The women's 12-year relationship was far more passionate than the writers let on here. Aside from this flaw in the script, the production is excellent. Director Ilich Guardiola maneuvers surely and briskly through all the play's grotesqueries, but he also knows when to slow down to smell the flowers.