My only knowledge of the phrase “Balm in Gilead” comes from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. “Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me – tell me, I implore!” On further investigation, it becomes apparent that the phrase originated in the Bible and refers to a kind of spiritual medicine.
Lanford Wilson’s 1965 play Balm in Gilead is set in a New York coffee house where the down and outs of society congregate: the drunks, the druggies, the prostitutes, the transvestites. I found the play difficult to get into at first: it features overlapping dialogue and simultaneous scenes, giving the work an almost documentary style. I think Hughes was aiming for a realistic style; trying to work out what was important, I thought he was making the point that it was all important.
In the hubbub, however, two characters stand out: drug dealer Joe (Liam Murray Scott) and newcomer Darlene (Amelia Bennett). They get together, but tragedy ensues. The circular ending confused me, until I thought about it. I felt that it was trying to say that nothing ever changes for these people. Their lives go on just the same. It’s sad, and you feel like you know them by the end of the piece. While Joe and Darlene are more or less the main characters, the play is basically an ensemble piece, and there were several very strong performances. It was unusual, but memorable.