Balagula Theatre opened its season Thursday evening with a strong, provocative production of one of contemporary theater's most interesting and notable plays, One Flea Spare by Kentucky native Naomi Wallace. With a performance history that includes the 1997 Obie Award for Best Play and admission into the permanent repertory of the Comédie-Française in 2009, this play explores the social chaos that ensues when people of widely divergent social classes are quarantined together during the plague in 17th-century London.
Natasha Williams' clear direction emphasizes the dichotomies of venality and charity, cruelty and compassion, and self-interest and self-loathing that war for primacy in the human condition. Her staging groups the characters in constantly changing alliances on the simple set by Russell Mendez, who also designed the subtle, dramatic lighting.
The acting by the characters who represent the commoners, Bunce (Joe Gatton) and Morse (Bethany Finley), carries much of the moral force of the story, embodying the upward mobility for which the masses have striven throughout history.
Gatton in particular creates a memorable portrayal of a man seeking to assert his own worth in a world that tells him he has none. He infuses every detail of his character with energy, commanding the stage whenever he is on it.
Finley also is eminently watchable, playing her role with fierce commitment and fleshing it out with fascinating nuances.
By contrast to the commoners, the aristocratic Mr. and Mrs. Snelgrave (Ron Shull and Lisa Welch) represent the tendency toward dissolution in civilization when ruling classes are compromised by corruption and hollow authority. Shull etches that trajectory with insightful delivery and broad humor. Welch plays her part with quieter bearing and more limited range of dramatic choices than the other actors, despite her character's horrific life story, but the wounded dignity that permeates her performance is quite moving, and she frequently commands attention with an unsettling undercurrent of honest eroticism.
As the town crier Kabe, Pete Sears obviously relishes playing the crass and cynical purveyor of death, providing a darkly existential context for the conflict between the other characters.
With this effective production of a contemporary classic, Balagula Theatre continues to establish itself as one of the most important outlets for serious dramatic art in the region.