A playwright’s work wrestles with doing the right thing

The situation created by writer David Gow in his two-character play, “Cherry Docs,” is virtually guaranteed to produce explosive drama. A skinhead facing trial for a racially motivated murder is being defended by a Jewish publicly appointed attorney. The cherry docs of the title refer to the steel-toed cherry-colored Doc Marten combat boots the youth wore when he repeatedly kicked his victim.

The play was first staged in 1998, in Toronto, and has been in constant production around the world for about 14 years, Gow said. It was turned into a film in 2005 and is currently being staged by the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga Canyon.

Although he doesn’t tie the story to any specific event, Gow, who is Jewish, cited some factors that inspired the play.

“My mother’s parents were of the generation that was lucky enough to get out of Belgium at the time of the Second World War. Both my grandfathers were in the Second World War, and so, when I lived in Ottawa, in Montreal and Toronto in the 1980s, and I would see skinheads — in particular, white supremacist skinheads — I would look at them and think of the history that my family had been through, and I would have a really visceral response to them, and I would think, ‘Well, what’s this all about?’

“There was a young guy with whom I was in school who was kicked in the face outside of a gay bar,” Gow continued, “because he was in the gay village, and some skinheads attacked him because he was gay. And then there were a couple of cases, a few, in fact, in Canada, where a Jewish lawyer ended up representing a skinhead on trial for murder.”

Early in the proceedings, Michael (Andrew Walker), the perpetrator, says he was drunk and is sorry his victim died, but he also makes racist remarks and even tells Danny, the lawyer (Alan Blumenfeld), “In an ideal world I’d see you eliminated. In this world I need you more than anyone.”

In approaching his character, Walker said, he imagined a backstory for the skinhead, after Gow shared some of the thoughts he had while writing the play. (Walker, who also played Michael in the film version, is currently working on a movie and won’t join the production until Sept. 18; until then, understudy Mark Cecil replaces him.)

David Gow

“Michael had a father,” Walker imagined, who “was probably a big drinker and beat his mom a bit. His mom was a real pushover. His dad would probably beat him up a bit, too, as he grew up. He was pushed out of the house at a young age, spent lots of nights on the streets, and slowly started to find this family in the skinheads. From 13 or 14 years old, he’s been committed to a life as a skinhead and has a family of skins that he has fun with and who are all like-minded, and also come from the same sort of upbringing that he did.”

For his part, Danny openly despises Michael’s belief system, but takes the assignment and does his best.

“He comes up against everything he believes in — his training and a background as an educated intellectual,” Blumenfeld explained. “He comes up against his political beliefs of tolerance and liberal, progressive inclusion. And when faced with someone with such violently anti-Semitic, bigoted hatred, he takes on the challenge of trying to find, as he says at the end of the play, a small piece of redemption, because he believes in tikkun olam, mending the world, and he sees this as a possibility.”

Blumenfeld believes the transformation that occurs in Danny because of his relationship with the skinhead is an unexpected outcome for this character.

“Danny’s character helps the skinhead see something different, but as a result, this Jewish lawyer winds up seeing the dark side of his own personality and loses sight of what it is that he’s doing.”

The actor added, “He has a spiritual breakdown. He has a dark night of the soul as a result of this interaction.”

On the other hand, Michael is transformed in a different direction. “He’s on this teeter-totter,” Walker said. “The ongoing phrase, the token phrase, is ‘bringing Michael through the eye of the needle.’ This is what Danny keeps saying to him through the entire play, basically, ‘I’m trying to take you through the eye of the needle. Once you pass through this eye of the needle, then you can decide,’ because I just have to connect with life, with reality, with people.”

Walker continued, “So, he’s now being put to the test, and every single belief, and everything in which he’s had some sort of trust, is now being questioned.

“There’s a line at the very end of the play, where Michael says, ‘If this man, Danny, is willing to help me, how could he be the spawn of Satan?’ ”

Both men have grown in a painful manner, Gow observed, and, Danny, who has suffered many losses, begins to discover a form of spirituality.

The action unfolds over the course of seven days, which Gow says is an intentional allusion to the story of creation.

“There’s a mythic template that sits underneath the play, and that mythic template is a battle between two people who could as easily be principals, or beings, inspired through looking at the literature of the Torah, and so these people are embodying struggles which have existed through time.”

Ultimately, Gow stressed, the story examines the necessity for people to coexist and to go beyond tolerance to actually love one another, or there will always be war, strife and murder. He pointed to the current recession in the United States and remarked that most people imagine themselves a victim of the situation, even when they still have their jobs, their education and their homes — and they have decided that they can’t hire anyone.

“I had a rabbi once who said to me, ‘You should pay people to do things.’ I said, ‘Why, because they’ll make a good job of it?’ And he said, ‘No. You should pay people to do things, because if you don’t give the other guy a plate of food to eat, he’s going to have to come after you eventually.’ And, I actually saw, as a result of that, in my own life, that when you hire other people, when you engage other people, when you show some compassion to other people, it, generally speaking, provides you, as the person who looks out for someone else, with much more than you’re giving.  You usually get more in return for your compassion and your kindness than whatever it is that you put on the table.”

“Cherry Docs”
Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum
The S. Mark Taper Foundation Youth Pavilion
1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Topanga, CA 90290
(310) 455-2322 main office
(310) 455-3724 fax
(310) 455-3723 box office
Thursdays, Sept. 6, 13, 20, 27; Saturdays, Oct. 6, 13. All shows at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $20
A panel discussion follows each performance.