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Theater review: 'Forgiveness' at Black Dahlia Theater

March 5, 2010 | 11:15 am

How does one deal with the aftermath of an unpardonable act? T.S. Eliot succinctly sums up the problem — “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Playwright and television writer David Schulner wrestles with the conundrum in “Forgiveness,” a small-scale realistic drama, its prosaic surface providing an excellent cover for some shocking (and daringly dramatized) revelations.

The play, which is receiving its world premiere at the Black Dahlia Theatre under the sharp, focused direction of artistic director Matt Shakman, poses its dilemma in the opening scene: Jill (the superb Emily Bergl) decides to tell her fiancé, Ben (a convincing Peter Smith), about a traumatic chapter in her family history just as they’re making the big drive to visit the man responsible for her decades in therapy.

FORGIVENESS 3 The news puts a real damper on the trip, as Ben can’t understand why Jill wants anything to do with her dad after what he did. (Better that you experience the bombshell directly from her than secondhand from me.) She explains that she has been processing the fallout for years, and that her father has done everything possible to make amends for his actions.
A recovering alcoholic and born-again Christian, Sam (Morlan Higgins) has indeed done his best to turn his life around. His wife, Penny (Lee Garlington), the protective earth mother he married after Jill’s mom dumped him, is also in recovery, and the two have groped their way out of darkness, raising her daughter, Jillian (a brave Kendall Toole, who also plays Jill in flashbacks as a girl), in as seemingly normal a manner as possible.

Schulner seems to be as agnostic about whether people like Sam can genuinely change as he is about whether their victims can ever learn to trust them again. The play, which traces the narrow emotional arc one tends to associate with a short story, is better at preserving ambiguity than intensifying dramatic build.

Beyond courageously depicting abuse in all its horrifying banality, “Forgiveness” basically offers actors a series of scenes in which awkward social exchanges hint at far more challenging moral questions. The ensemble, guided by Shakman into a series of close-up moments on the Black Dahlia's minuscule stage, thoroughly inhabits the contradictory reality of the characters — crushed on the inside, persevering on the out.
Kurt Boetcher’s starkly minimalist set conceals a girl’s back bedroom, which occasionally comes into view. The effect points to childhood scars that will never vanish — a burden that Bergl’s Jill hauntingly conveys in her dignified determination to move forward without relinquishing the past. 

-- Charles McNulty

follow him on Twitter @ charlesmcnulty
“Forgiveness,” Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Ends March 28. $25. (800) 838-3006 or Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Photos: Top: Emily Bergl, left, Lee Garlington. Bottom: Peter Smith and Bergl. Credit: Kurt Boetcher