Playwright: Terrence McNally. At: Eclipse Theatre Company at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6875 or www.eclipsetheatre.com; $20-$30. Runs through: Aug. 23
Can audiences empathize with characters who frequently epitomize the stereotype of the "Ugly American" abroad? Or a bigger challenge is whether audiences of today can give a second chance to a distraught character who shockingly uses racist and homophobic slurs when you least expect it.
These are just some of the difficulties posed by gay playwright Terrence McNally in his acclaimed 1993 drama A Perfect Ganesh, currently being revived by Eclipse Theatre Company in an engrossing production directed by Steven Fedoruk. But McNally's drama is very much about exploring the gray areas of his conflicted characters as they reveal their many fears and failings, so it's best not to rely on snap judgments about who is good or bad.
A Perfect Ganesh begins with an introduction by the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh ( Michael Harris ) explaining his joyful role and how he seems to be everywhere. It's also a clever premise that allows Harris and the play's other male actor, Phil Higgins, to assume multiple roles throughout the play.
But the main focus is on Margaret Civil ( Elaine Carlson ) and Katherine "Kitty" Brynne ( Jeannie Affelder ), two wealthy U.S. women friends who take a comprehensive package vacation to India. Kitty is the more freewheeling and initially likable of the two, while Margaret is the far more uptight and judgmental one.
As it blends from scene to scene, A Perfect Ganesh comes across as a fever dream as past and current traumas all come to haunt Kitty and Margaret as they're transfixed or appalled by their Indian surroundings. Early on we find out that Kitty was estranged from her grown son who was killed in a gay-bashing attack, while Margaret admits to a stranger that she has found a lump in her breast.
Alternately annoying and affecting, Carlson and Affelder strongly latch onto their respective roles of Margaret and Kitty. These are two fine parts for actresses of a certain age, and they allow the performers to delve dramatically into so much characterful terrain. Harris and Higgins also give strong performances as they transform chameleon-like into characters from many different classes and nationalities.
Fedoruk and his trusty design team also make all of the play's demands artfully plausible, with particularly fine work by sound designer Cooper Forsman helping to create an Indian soundscape amid the visual exotica set design by Mike Winkelman.
So even if A Perfect Ganesh nearly clocks in at three hours, Eclipse Theatre Company makes it all a journey that you're certainly glad to be along with for the ride. And that even includes the incidences of shock and annoyance that accompanies any kind of vacation abroad. Either way, it's all very memorable and entrancing.