Aunt Dan and Lemon: A strange tutorial in moral honesty
- Written by Steve Callahan
"Aunt Dan and Lemon" is by Wallace Shawn—one the very few contemporary American playwrights who can write a truly compelling play about ideas. A fine production has opened at Washington University. This play is set at the time of the Viet Nam war, but its message is eternal.
We see Lemon, a woman of indeterminate age, living alone on a small inherited income. She's a recluse and of frail health. She spends much of her time reading books about the Nazis and remembering the colorful confidante of her adolescent years, "Aunt Dan". Dan (Danielle) was a college friend of her parents—a brilliant and articulate young American professor at a British university. Dan was riotously Bohemian. She would regularly spend long evenings telling Lemon tales of her life on the wild side—sexual escapades, friends who were involved with gangsters and murder. So Lemon had a vicarious life of excitement. But in truth Dan, too, lived vicariously. She was an essential voyeur, unable to maintain real human relationships. And perhaps because of this she idolized those who really engage life—in particular Henry Kissinger, whom she saw as one of those who can make our unpleasant decisions for us.
In this context Shawn examines morality with a refreshing—even a shocking honesty. Are we so different from the Nazis? We hypocritically tell ourselves we are, but Lemon, as a Nazi apologist, is horrifyingly appealing. We all maintain our way of life through the suffering of others. We all leap to the easiest rationalizations to mask this from ourselves. This play gives a naked and perhaps a dangerous truth. We must ask ourselves what we'll tolerate. Are a few Iraqi deaths an acceptable cost for low oil prices? A few thousand? How much suffering will we tolerate elsewhere in the world to sustain our comfortable way of life? Some? Well, of course! A lot? Well... The line we draw between "us" and "them" is tragically important as we observe the rapid Balkanization of the world—and of America. Whose national or tribal way of life, whose religion, whose ideology is to be preserved? And at what cost to others?
Director Anna Maria Pileggi was brave to undertake this play, so shocking in its candor. And she has given it a truly fine production. The set which greets us in the Hotchner Studio Theatre is by designer Robert Mark Morgan and it is quite simply perfect. We see a room with comfortable Victorian touches—the chandelier, a lamp. The focus is on a slight woman in an old-fashioned bed up center. This is Lemon (née Leonora). Her bed is atop an almost ziggurat of books—hundreds of them, in layers like steps leading up to—a dais?—an altar? And (clever Anna Maria) the spines of the books are all away from us so we won't be tempted to read them.
Emma Flannery, as Lemon, lies in bed on this altar. She rests on all of literature, philosophy—all of western civilization. Germany, in the thirties, rested on a similar mountain of intellectual and cultural riches. Miss Flannery brightly captures the ingenuousness of this girl/woman. She could be eleven; she could be a still-childlike forty. She is clear-sighted, un-blinkered. She is free of the familiar shackles of moral dogma. Listening to her "Aunt Dan" she blazes with curiosity. She is learning, learning! Is she a monster in admiring the Nazis? They were, after all, only trying to maintain a certain ideal way of life.
Other strong performances are given by Ebby Offord as Aunt Dan; Carly Rosenbaum as Mindy, the almost-hooker; and T. J. Brantley and Victor Mendez as Lemon's parents (and others). Marek Rodriguez is especially fine as the Latin lover Raimondo.
Costumer JC Krajicek does beautiful work—true to period and character. Lemon's nightgown gives her somehow an air of Emily Dickinson. Raimondo's sleazy shiny maroon suit is perfect.
It's a strong, challenging production that will make you think. It continues at Washington University through April 22.
Emma Flannery as Lemon (left) and Ebby Offord as Aunt Dan. (Photo: Joe Angeles/Washington University)