Playwright Sandra Perlman has come up with an intriguing pitch-like premise in Lunacy, now being given its world premiere at Dobama Theatre: A lauded actor rehearsing to play King Lear is invited to interact with a man in an insane asylum who believes he is Lear. Although this piece is well acted and has some interesting moments, the central conceit and an ever-shifting tone pose more questions than Perlman or director Mark Alan Gordon has answers for.
Edwin Forrest is a brash and confident young actor in 1827, preparing to portray the aged regent at a Philadelphia theater. As he struggles to remember his lines, he is interrupted by a Quaker woman, Cornelia, who has a request. Her father, Benjamin, has recently been ensconced in a Friends' Asylum, his dementia apparently triggered by the death of his wife.
Ben has taken on the identity of King Lear and speaks only in lines from Shakespeare's play. So Cornelia (echoing the name of Lear's faithful daughter Cordelia) wants Edwin to use his knowledge of the play to lead Pops out of fantasyland. And to entice the actor, she suggests that Edwin can learn to be the perfect Lear by witnessing the "real" thing.
Eventually, Edwin shows up at the loony bin and bats around some line readings with the old man. Trouble is, neither gent has anything at stake in these interchanges: Edwin has no compelling reason to help rescue the head case and seems only mildly intrigued with seeing this schizo-Lear for performance tips. After all, any Shakespearean actor worth his bodkin knows that there are infinite interpretations that could work for this role. And old Ben, for his part, is just out of it.
That leaves Cornelia, who also gamely tries to act lines from the play to help her dad. But it's hard to care about people we aren't allowed to know on any realistic level. Another loose thread left dangling by the playwright is the element of Quakerism, which appears to exist only to set up a couple of easy jokes. (After Edwin whines about demands on his time, Cornelia says, "Leave it to you to teach a Quaker about sacrifice.")
An engaging Dan Hammond plays Edwin broadly, as a cross between Sean Penn and Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian. It's worth a few chuckles, but this characterization is an odd fit with talented Bernadette Clemens, who plays Cornelia as straight and rigid as a mission chair. And with Michael Regnier happily chewing the scenery in his own world as Benjamin, the tone of the play continually flip-flops.
Perhaps Perlman wants to make the point that all of us are merely actors, sane or otherwise. But Shakespeare did that long ago, and all in one line.