Sisters Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall star in Terrence McNally’s sprawling A Perfect Ganesh under the Topanga Canyon trees at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. They play middle-aged friends from Connecticut, Katharine (Geer) and Margaret (Marshall), traveling to India to seek spiritual comfort for the tragedies that have begun to overwhelm them.
Katharine and Margaret are accompanied by Ganesh (aka Ganesha, played by Mueen Jahan), a Hindu deity with the head of an elephant. As a god of love and a remover of obstacles, Ganesh is an excellent travel companion. As a narrator and context-provider he’s also useful to audience members.
Magic is in the air as Ganesh proclaims his omnipresent happiness; the magic dissipates, as it must in an airport, when the friends struggle with luggage and logistics at the Air India counter. The struggle between the uplifting spiritual and worldly problems recurs throughout the play: liver spots, travel woes, illness and coping with death threaten to overwhelm the quest for a higher level of consciousness—or even a few minutes without worry. A trip to the Ganges is more gruesome than healing.
A Perfect Ganesh dates to the early 1990s and AIDS is a mighty presence. Katharine has lost her gay son to another scourge, a violent homophobic beating, and must make peace with the role her own anti-gay sentiment played in her son’s short life. Margaret is carrying her own dark secret.
The show feels dated, especially the ugly American attitudes of the friends, but it is undeniably an excellent showcase, for the lead actors/sisters, the fabulous Theatricum Botanicum outdoor theater and the Indian culture woven through the story. Music enhances the show as it wafts through the Topanga woods.
Rajiv Shah seamlessly transitions between several roles, including Katharine’s son and a fellow traveler. Shivani Thakkar is a female spirit whose ethereal and accomplished dances beautifully punctuate the story. An ensemble of an additional five fills the stage, silently adding depth and context to this fish-out-of-water tale of two Americans fettered by pain and closemindedness slowly gain awareness and find peace.
The friends plumb their emotional depths and visit multiple Indian cities and sights. The trip begins to feel overly long, but then are abruptly home. Their travel souvenirs extend well beyond Katharine’s collection of Ganesh statuettes (her quest for the perfect one gives the play its title). The trip has defined lives lived and lives cut short providing rarely attained closure and a feeling of contentment.
A Perfect Ganesh runs through Oct. 7, with 11 remaining weekend performances; see the website for specific dates and to purchase tickets. A prologue (pre-show discussion) is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 10 from 6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Scroll all the way down or visit the website for a complete schedule of performances. Tickets are $30 $48; premium seating is available for $60. Pay What You Will ticket pricing (cash only at the door) is available for the performances on Friday, Aug. 4 and Friday, Sept. 1. Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Theatricum Botanicum is also holding a 50th anniversary gala fundraiser, honoring Debbie Allen, on August 5, hosted by Wendie Malick and Pamela Adlon with performances by Beau Bridges, members of the Theatricum Company and surprise guests.