The Old Globe Wades into Public Affairs with a Horror About Homelessness

Arts/Culture

The Old Globe Wades into Public Affairs with a Horror About Homelessness

As this country emerges from a recession, we have no shortage of heart-wrenching stories about poverty and struggle. The Old Globe has a new artistic director, Barry Edelstein, who wants us to grapple with them.

The central fact driving “Bethany” — The Old Globe’s new play running through Feb. 23 — is that a woman named Crystal lost her home.

When she went to a shelter, the state seized her daughter, Bethany.

Crystal then becomes a squatter in a foreclosed home with an insane roommate she definitely did not choose.

As this country emerges from a recession, we have no shortage of heart-wrenching stories about poverty and struggle. The Old Globe has a new artistic director, Barry Edelstein, who wants us to grapple with them.

But Crystal is beautiful. She’s white. She’s smart and resourceful. She’s not on drugs — this point is made clear. She even has a job. At one point, the social worker in the play asks her how it could be possible that, with all she has going for her, she has ended up in such a mess.

That moment feels like a nod from the playwright, Laura Marks, that, yes, this is a hard story to believe.

First off, Child Protective Services (CPS) would not seize a woman’s daughter if she lost her home and sought help at a shelter.

“Not unless you’re abusing the child. CPS is not quick to remove the child unless there’s imminent danger. We have quite a number of single mothers, single dads and families with both and, no, the kids are not taken away,” Trisha Brereton, executive director of Interfaith Shelter Network of San Diego, told me.

It appears the version of “Bethany” that ran in New York might have offered more backstory — that Crystal had some more going on in her previous home, and that’s why Bethany went to a foster home.

But that context didn’t come across in the Old Globe version.

And yet, context is what Edelstein’s aiming for. He has paired the show with a special panel discussion, Monday, about affordable housing in San Diego. Interim Mayor Todd Gloria and representatives from the Housing Commission and Housing Federation will be speaking.

Edelstein wants The Old Globe, with its perch on public land, in a giant public park, to be a truly public institution grappling with big public problems. It has done this before. But Edelstein wants to go much further.

“What I’m trying to do is make it more of a sustained effort and to look for more ways to deal with social issues and provide more context for our audience,” he said.

Let’s do some more context: “Bethany” features a particularly odious character, a man named Charlie. He is a smooth-talking motivational speaker.

Charlie is the writer’s vehicle for the hope America tries to sell its poor. His creepy “you-can-be-rich-too” speeches pepper the performance.

But peddling hope is not only the domain of faux capitalists. Edelstein’s panel discussion is lopsided toward one solution for the problem of high housing costs. The Housing Federation and Housing Commission are committed to constructing publicly subsidized apartment complexes.

The hope they sell is that, with more investment in building these things, they can save the Crystals who fall through life’s holes.

But their system is welfare by lottery. It produces so few homes, it’s like taking three delicious meals to a food bank packed with hundreds of hungry visitors.

Yes, a few lucky folks will eat.

The Housing Commission, with its own study, admits that the market itself, which dwarfs the meek investments of the government, will have to create tens of thousands of housing units. Only that can provide the choice and availability of places to live we need to make housing costs more manageable for all working people.

Edelstein’s panel discussion will lack this perspective.

“I don’t feel the theater is journalism and it’s not my responsibility to put together a fair and balanced thing like a journalist would. I want to make it a fulcrum for civic discussion,” he said. And he encouraged me to come to the panel and ask some tough questions.

I may.

To me, Bethany was more horror than drama. Like a good horror film, it wanted me to feel a new type of desperation.

I did and you should see it. Your heart will pound and sink as you watch Crystal make the decisions she does.

And then we can go to the panel and see what decisions real people need to make. It’s not a bad idea on how to start a conversation and I hope it starts a good one.

Correction: I removed a line that said this was the artistic director’s first offering. It was not. And The Old Globe did not refer to the ending of Bethany as “magical” as I wrote. That was about another play. I apologize and I have revised the ending.

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