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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the February 11, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: ‘Circumference of a Squirrel’
The lights reveal a young man with an inner tube clenched between his teeth. But we soon learn that the man isn’t supposed to be a man at all but rather a squirrel, and the inner tube is a bagel. A pretty funny sight, but the humor ends there.
Chester, a former student of microbiology has dropped out of at U-Penn. “Not fulfilling my potential,” he says of his decision, and his professors, to take some time off. Evidently Chester, played by Ames Adamson (the sole actor) in “Circumference of a Squirrel,” by John Walch, has a story to tell and it’s not a funny one. Walch, who has earned National awards that recognize him as an “emerging” and “promising,” playwright, has written a unique, if also very strange, 90 minute one-man play that gives some credence to those awards.
Since dropping out, Chester has not only failed to fulfill his potential, but has been married and divorced. These failures, he attributes directly to the influence and conditioning in his youth by his raging anti-Semitic father (“Hitler was a crazy son-of-a-bitch, but he sure knew how to kill Jews”). Chester reveals his father as a man whose intense fear and loathing of Jews has manifested into a personal pogrom against squirrels. This began soon after he was bitten in the leg by a squirrel and had to undergo a series of painful rabies shots. His revenge was the aggressive pursuit and annihilation of squirrels.
Chester attempts to purge his own damaged psyche, through the venting of memories of the mindless and senseless acts that he and his older brother were forced to commit for pay under his father’s directive. Chester is still haunted by the memories of “massacre and malice,” when he and his brother sat up at night thinking of elaborate traps by which they could kill squirrels. Except for the packages of lifesavers that his father would give him as a gift, and which Chester remembers as his father’s only acts of kindness, there is apparently little redeemable about his relationship to his father. However Chester does acknowledge his hatred for his father as a festering force in his life.
Early in the play, Chester delivers an academic lecture on the nature and physiology of squirrels, thereby explaining his obsession as a condition he calls Rodentophobia. Weirdly informative as it is, it helps to define Chester’s psychosis and the effect it has on him when he makes a Christmas visit to his parent’s home, bringing with him Dara, the Jewess he intends to marry. Chester never reveals the details that lead to the divorce, although Chester suggests an uneasy tension in their relationship from the moment he tells her about the squirrels.
But Chester is no longer the freckled-faced red-haired youth made fearful of squirrels. He does continue to harbor his mother’s warning that a bite would give him “dirty blood.” We watch and listen as the 28-year-old Chester attempts to gnaw his way through some tough psychological barriers. In particular, he tries to understand why his marriage to a Jewess was doomed from the start, and why his mother suffered through years of enduring ridicule for her love of arts and crafts.
Walsh’s play is not exactly subtle in its use of the squirrel as a metaphor for Jews. And it doesn’t exactly welcome humor, not even of the gallows variety, as Adamson drives the somewhat heavy-handed message home. The play, however, affords Adamson an opportunity to expose Chester’s personal malaise via some antic posturing at different ages and stages, as well as giving a voice to his father, mother and wife. Adamson, who has appeared with NJ Rep for the past three seasons, gives a performance that is commendable on many levels, although too much of it brings him a tad too close for comfort to the audience in the smaller second stage space at New Jersey Rep.
Chester’s words, “I am my father’s son,” will have to lose their hold over him. “If I let go of my hatred for my father, then who am I?” is the question that drives him. It is the answer to that question that leads to Chester’s apparent epiphany. This has something to do with Chester’s understanding of Louis Pasteur’s discovery that “the cure lies in the thing itself.”
— Simon Saltzman
Circumference of a Squirrel, New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, 732-229-3166. www.njrep.org. $30. To February 15.
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