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London Calling

The call of the wild is a call to destiny in Pear Avenue's 'Veracruz'

By Marianne Messina

PEAR AVENUE Theatre's premiere of John F. Levin's play Veracruz opens with a slide show (World War I-era soldiers marching off to war) set to an Irving Berlin tune celebrating the occasion: "They'll make them run like a herd of cattle/They'll know they've had some battle, way down in Mexico." As actor Mark D. Messersmith (playing author Jack London) pointed out in a post-show Q&A, a PR campaign to rally support behind the war with Mexico had been set in motion. At the time, 1914, the United States expected to be annexing Mexico, from the rubber plantations to the oil fields. And London offered his voice to the effort, reporting from Veracruz for Collier's magazine.

As a playwright, Levin was attracted to the little-remembered 1914 seizure and occupation of Veracruz because London's writing from the front in support of capitalist interests—represented in the play by oil baron Bill Buckley (Tom Ammon)—showed a marked departure from his socialist leanings. Socialist critics were claiming that London, with his extravagant lifestyle and larger-than-life ranch in California, had sold out.

Levin weaves these and other news stories of the times, including a prisoner-abuse scandal (which Levin penned long before Abu Ghraib), to create a fascinating study of the personal and political interests that make up a war. Historically, young Capt. Douglas MacArthur was sent to Veracruz to help secure the area. In Levin's premise, London and MacArthur (Ron Talbot) meet at the Hotel Diligencias. At first drawn to MacArthur because he needs the inside story, London finds himself intoxicated by MacArthur's ideas about "destiny." London's ideological betrayal disillusions the young socialist writer Fred Boalt (Ed L. Robinson), and in a heated scene (a powerful job by Messersmith), London calls Boalt's ideals "ill-conceived East Coast college boy socialism." Meanwhile, London's behavioral changes cause a rift between him and his wife, Charmian (Holli Hornlien).

Messersmith's vibrant London and his engaging repertoire of facial expressions provide the right combination of bravado and wit to explain both London's charisma and his dissolution. In contrast to Messersmith's conflicted London, Talbot and Hornlien give us two people firmly planted in themselves and comfortable with who they are. Hornlien's Charmian brings out the plucky intelligence and strength it must have taken to accompany London on his wild adventures. And the chemistry between her and Messersmith takes us on a tasty sometimes-bittersweet ride through a unique domestic bond.

The Pear Avenue Theatre continues to defy its size, taking on a large cast (nine) and extensive scene changes (seven). With brilliant economy, a tri-paneled screen and a chest/bench/bed upholstered to match (whisked on and off in seconds) create a homey atmosphere for the Londons' hotel suite that contrasts nicely with the open-air tables at the Hotel Diligencias. The production also includes a flurry of historical costuming, like army uniforms with jodhpurs and laced wooden gaiters (kudos to Patricia Tyler). It's a meaty, rangy production with plenty of action, and in pure Pear tradition some of the most energetic scenes—an argument, a punch in the jaw, a tearful plea—happen right at your feet.

Veracruz, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Oct. 10 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Mountain View. Tickets are $10-$20. (650.254.1148)

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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