To put on Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, a study of how prejudice embeds itself into someone’s worldview, in this year’s political climate couldn’t be more relevant. Shadowtime Productions and director Dan Spurgeon have mounted a starkly beautiful and courageously acted play about losing compassion in the throes of obsessive love.
A young girl, Lemon (Helen Juvonen), suffers from a nondescript illness in the English countryside. Her father (Philip Cairns) is the blandest of self-effaced corporatist tools, while her doormat mother (Jane Hailes) is destroyed in the aftermath of her husband’s professional emasculation. Lemon can rely only on her dear bigoted and xenophobic Aunt Dan (Joanne Latimer), her parents’ friend, for company and mentorship. Dan mostly defends classism, a government’s right to kill to conserve its people’s way of life, the Vietnam War, and the war crimes of her crush, Henry Kissinger, whose realpolitik she subscribes to with unrestrained infatuation. Only 11 years old, Lemon’s thinking inches helplessly toward the far right.
Dan’s use of empty, ornate rhetoric on Lemon is both a political tactic and a linguistic deficiency. It’s hard for Lemon to understand what Dan means sometimes, or to tell whether or not it’s prejudiced, but in her young mind, it's worth following either way.
That no character has much in the way of redeeming qualities puts audience members in the uncomfortable but all-too-rare position of studying the types of people they might try to avoid in real life.
Mindy (Breton Lalama), Dan’s college friend, is a two-faced temptress and illuminating symbolic parallel to Dan’s indoctrinating ways. Lemon herself grows through Dan’s cult of practicality into sympathizing with the Nazis for doing what everyone does and fighting for their preferred way of life. Everyone is a means to someone else’s end. And while it isn’t a hoot to consider ignorance and cruelty on one’s own terms from the comfort of a cushioned seat, it has its benefits.
The show is a timely refresher that a little misplaced admiration can lead to the adoption of a beloved’s deplorable worldview. It invites us to view the power-hungry, those who perpetuate violence, and those who admire them through a reasoned, humanist lens. It places compassion squarely in the category of things that require regular workouts to maintain.
Others may poke at Aunt Dan and Lemon’s haphazard structure, long-winded script, disposable secondary characters, and overreliance on staged conversations, but they will have missed Shawn’s refusal to make the deeply held objectionable opinions that are his subject matter more digestible than they deserve.