Northlight Theatre, at the Northwestern University Theatre and Interpretation Center, Josephine Louis Theatre.
In Terrence McNally's play middle-aged friends Katharine and Margaret embark on a latter-day passage to India. Guided by the prankster elephant-god Ganesha, these Connecticut ladies learn to detach themselves from earthly extremes of joy and sorrow and to accept their mortality, in the process showing compassion to their fellow travelers, who of course will also die. Both bring emotional baggage to their two-week trek: Katharine wrestles with guilt over her treatment of her gay son and the racist hate she feels for the bashers who killed him. Margaret carries cancer in her breast, a secret she aches to expose.
Economical but exotic, Brian Russell's staging features a continuously unfolding, gorgeously lit backdrop by John Culbert and beautifully crafted performances by Roslyn Alexander as the openhearted but anguished Katharine and Mary Seibel as crusty, protective Margaret. Paul Oakley Stovall has contagious fun as their manipulative benefactor, and Scott Lowell plays their 14 diverse fellow travelers.
But despite the rich details McNally has bestowed on the teeming wharves of Bombay and the burning ghats of Benares, this spiritual travelogue seems as manipulative as Ganesha himself: the events here are keys that fit the locks too neatly. McNally means so well that you wish he could make you feel rather than deduce his lesson on the relativity of suffering. You also wish that the complexity and contradictions of a subcontinent hadn't been reduced to a mystical advice column for the benefit of two rather ordinary pilgrims.