In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

"A Passage to India" is a great story, but the Off the Wall production leaves much to be desired. (PHOTO: offthewalltheatre.com)

Off the Wall's "Passage to India" sparks search for a passage out of the theater

The independence movement in India during the middle of the last century is a memorable and important moment in world history, sparking what became the end of the British Empire. There have been dozens of books, poems and films that portray the complexities of the occupation and eventual end to the British colonization after World War II. Think of "Gandhi" and "Gunga Din."

But perhaps the seminal book about the period is "A Passage to India," the final novel from E. M. Forster which was then made into a highly acclaimed 1984 film written and directed by David Lean. Telling this story demands the kind of broad and sensitive approach that gets to the genuine heart of questions of race and class, as well as the ability to tell that story through the lens of a quagmire of love and heartbreak.

Unfortunately, very little of that kind of atmosphere was around when Off the Wall Theatre opened Dale Gutzman's version of "Passage" Thursday night. Gutzman both wrote and directed this production, but the whole thing is nowhere near the high level of work he normally delivers.

The story concerns two women, Mrs. Moore (Marilyn White) and Adela Quested (Jacqueline Roush), both British and both members of the upper crust occupation forces in India. Roush is engaged to be married to Ronny (Jeremy C. Welter) who is also White's son.

During a visit to a series of tourist destination caves, an incident explodes and Dr. Aziz (David Flores), an Indian physician, is accused of attempting to rape Roush.

What follows is a trial of minimal proportion, and eventually – as we all knew in advance – the good doctor is acquitted as Roush admits her mis-accusation and announces that she is breaking off her engagement to Welter. Her heart, she pledges, is to India.

One of the hallmarks of most high school theatrical productions is the stage presence of a couple of kids who really have acting chops and then a whole bunch of other kids who have only a nodding acquaintance with the world of theater.

That's unfortunately kind of what this production is like. There are powerful and experienced performers – Flores, White, Roush, Welter, James Strange – on the stage. But Gutzman, who has a small role himself, surrounds those performers with a group that might better have stayed in bed rather than show up at the tiny space on Wells Street.

Overacting, fumbled lines and vacant stares off into space are a dead solid guarantee for making an audience hope for early release from this prison.

At one point during the second act, Welter tells a character, "Never mind, it will soon be over." I hoped that his words would ring true.

To be fair, perhaps, the cast was not handed a world-class script. The entire story comes off as corny rather than fresh and pedestrian rather than interesting. The characters may well be cardboard cutouts, saddled with dialogue that doesn't tell the story, as well as a number of brief soliloquies with an actor standing in a spotlight talking to the back wall. I kept looking over my shoulder to see what had captured their attention. Nothing.

The platitudes flowed through this production like a never-ending water boarding session.

"We Muslims rely more on our hearts than our heads."

"Everything has two or more faces."

"We learn we are strong when we learn we have something to fear."

"India knows the troubles of the whole world, but India promises no solutions."

What does that ever mean? And that was the problem with the whole night. What does the whole thing mean?

"A Passage to India" runs through Oct. 2 and information on showtimes and tickets is available here.


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