Sunday, October 31, 2010

Miss Lulu Bett by Zona Gale (1921)

Summary:  Lulu is basically a slave for her sister and brother-in-law Dwight, who agree to let her stay in their home if she cooks for them, provides childcare and looks after their aging mother.  However, when Dwight's brother Ninian comes to town, he displays an interest in Miss Lulu, whisks her away and marries her immediately.  A few weeks later, Lulu dejectedly returns "home", stating that Ninian  revealed that he had another wife somewhere that may or may not be dead.

Dwight is cruel to Lulu about the situation until Ninian eventually returns, proves his first wife's death and lives happily ever after with Lulu...once again.

Thoughts:  1918's Why Marry (written by a man) contained powerful feminist statements about the roles of women in marriage.  Because it was the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, I wondered if it would set an unexpected (for me) socially progressive tone for subsequent winners.  Miss Lulu Bett (written by a woman) answers the question with a resounding, "No!"  Once Lulu meets Ninian, she is completely dependent upon him for her happiness and salvation from a bad situation, even though her own romantic feelings toward him are never fully explored.  The conflicts of the play are interesting, but the return of Ninian resulting in immediate conclusion is disappointing.

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry (1988)

Summary:  After an unfortunate accident involving the neighbor's garage, Boolie Werthan decides to hire a black chauffeur for his mother Daisy.  For the next twenty-five years, she resists Hoke's help while they both gradually develop a deep mutual affection toward one another.

Thoughts:  I flew through this play (much like my reading experience of Doubt, actually).  The language of this play is precise:  neither Daisy not Hoke wastes their time with superfluous anything--especially words.  As such, each of Uhry's lines reveals something about his characters.

In his Introduction, Uhry explains that these are real people--amalgamations of individuals he encountered over the course of his childhood in Atlanta.  Anyone who has grown up in the South has probably known their own Miss Daisy.  Maybe I loved this play because it reminded me of my own grandmother; but I also found myself moved by the simplicity of the story and detail of the characters lives as they stay together for twenty-five years. 

I have written before about film adaptions that have made it hard for me to get the voices of the film actors (Jimmy Stewart in Harvey) out of my head.  This was not one of them.  While I remember the cinematic performances offered by Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy (Academy Award, 1989), Uhry's play is as remarkable on paper as it is in performance.

I recently read a New York Times review of the 2010 Broadway revival starring Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones that noted the challenge of staging this play because it is certainly not a visual piece.  The article explained that the new production features slides in the background depicting the Civil Rights struggle and other events over the course of the twenty-five year setting (1948-1973).  After reading the play, I wonder why why why.  Uhry's work is strong enough to be produced with very little visual element...especially with actors like Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

Photo credit:  Carol Rosegg
"I am in the process of writing the screenplay.  I have won the Pulitzer Prize.  Even as I write these words they seem unbelievable to me.  When I wonder how all this happened (which I do a lot!) I can come up with only one answer.  I wrote what I knew to be the truth and people recognized it as such."
-Alfred Uhry, Introduction

That Championship Season by Jason Miller (1973)

Summary:  The 1952 Pennsylvania State Championship basketball team has gathered for a reunion-of-sorts at Coach's house.   They reminisce about the good times, share memories about an absent teammate and discuss their fairly boring adult lives.  The major conflict of the play comes when it is revealed that Phil is having an affair with George's wife.  George is the mayor and wants to run for reelection, but the boys aren't sure he is still the right man for the job--perhaps because he is the most outwardly emotional of the bunch and awkwardly mourns for an institutionalized son.  Though "the team" fights throughout the play and struggles with the reality that Coach is aging, the conclusion of the play depicts the cast listening to a recording of the last few moments of their championship game.

Thoughts:  In the Introduction, director Joseph Papp repeatedly states that he has always thought of this as "an actor's play."  He also mentions that when it was originally pitched to him, he hesitated to give it a full production.  I know what Papp meant by "actor's play"; but when I finished reading it, I also felt that it is a play that does not hold up well on paper.  In other words, this is a play that must be seen to be fully appreciated.  Much of the work I have encountered in this project also stands as literature for critical analysis and appreciation, but this is not one of those plays.

This is the first play about sports that I have encountered in the project, and I'm fairly certain that the audience demographic for this show was unusual.  With the recent debut of Lombardi on Broadway (and stories about professional athlete sightings at the theatre), this play makes me think about the importance of plays that appeal strongly to a specific audience who ordinarily wouldn't be seen in the theatre.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talley's Folly by Lanford Wilson (1980)

Summary:  The play opens with Matt directly addressing the audience, making comments about the romantic set and telling the audience that the play will be over in ninety-seven minutes.  He also states that he is going to need all the help he can get in the conversation that follows.  When Sally enters, it becomes clear that they had a hot, sexy affair the previous summer and he is back to profess his love and claim her as his wife.  Throughout the conversation, Sally resists, saying that they don't really know anything about each other and are probably too old to be getting married anyway (the play is set in 1944 and Matt is in his 40s). 
In response, a very guarded Matt reveals details about his past--involving a Lithuanian childhood and detainment by French and German officials in the early 1900s (this segment of the play is very important...and also very confusing).  Ultimately, Sally agrees to leave her family in Mississippi and marry Jewish Matt--a decision that will certainly not please her family.
Thoughts:  The first four pages of this story have a very charming, very Our Town-like appeal.  Matt seems likable, and is highly concerned with winning the emotional support and favor of the audience.  However, once Sally shows up, the charm evaporates.  The two spend the first half of the play bickering.  When Matt is finally forced to reveal something about his personal background, his narrative is purposely stilted by how he chooses to tell the story (in vague fairytale tones).  Though this play attempts to make statements about religious persecution and family pressure in relationships, I never felt myself pulling for Sally and Matt.
After Sally appears, a rigid fourth wall is erected and is only broken by the last line of the play:  "And so, all's well that ends... (Takes out his watch, shows time to Sally, then to audience)...right on the button.  Good night.  (They embrace)."

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1948)

Summary:  Blanche Dubois arrives in New Orleans to visit her sister Stella.  It is immediately clear that Blanche is unaccustomed to city life and uncomfortable around blue-collar workers like Stanley (Stella's husband).  Pregnant Stella attempts to keep the peace while her husband and sister antagonize each other.  Eventually, fueled by frustration, Stanley does some sleuthing and discovers that Blanche left Mississippi because she had acquired quite a reputation and had no other place to go.  Late in the play, Stanley and Blanche have implied (non-consensual?) sex.  Subsequently, Blanche is taken to a mental institution.

Thoughts:  I feel a great deal of pressure to come up with some "thoughts" about one of the most famous (and read) plays on the list.  Though this was not my first read of this play, I continue to be impressed by Williams' craftsmanship.

While the main characters in this play (arguably Blanche and Stanley) do unlikeable things, they are not unlikeable people.  Flawed?  Yes.   Unlikeable?  Certainly not.  Because they are two very different people, Williams uses two dynamic techniques to reveal their individual humanity to audiences.  Blanche is most vulnerable when delivering a monologue to Mitch (a potential admirer) about her deceased husband (a gay man who committed suicide in front of her after she told him that he disgusted her).  In contrast, Stanley's vulnerability is glaringly on display after a fight with Stella.  Following the violent outburst, he returns to his wife in a pitiful, remorseful and childlike state.  While Stella is able to see the humanity in both her sister and husband, neither Stanley nor Blanche develop sympathy for each other.  Instead, the spirit of antagonism builds to an unsavory climax.

William's Introduction is conspicuously not about the likely controversial story to follow; but is about his own process as an artist and how the success of The Glass Menagerie almost caused him to stagnate.  His final words encourage readers to live....while they still have time to do it.

Original Cast List, Signet edition

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks (2002)

Summary:  Lincoln and Booth are adult brothers whose parents named them as a joke and later abandoned them when they were 16 and 11, respectively.  Younger brother Booth has recently developed an affinity for three-card monty, a game accompanied by a painful history for Lincoln.  While Booth is attempting to make money on the street, Lincoln holds a job as an Abraham Lincoln impersonator at an arcade.  At work, he sits in a chair (in whiteface) and gets "shot" by children on field trips and those seeking interesting entertainment.

Throughout the play, Booth attempts to get Lincoln to play three-card with him--arguing that they could go into business together and be wildly successful.  As the play progresses, the brothers laugh and fight and laugh and fight--until Booth reveals that he has killed his girlfriend and then kills his brother.

Thoughts:  I read this play shortly after reading some of Parks' other work (Fucking A, In the Blood, Venus) and it is evident that there are themes and characters that continue to reappear in her work.  In all four of these plays, Parks seems to argue that, whether we like it or not, our relationships with our families are significant and binding.  Even when her characters do everything in their power to break these bonds (including murder), they still remain.

The play also examines the the imperfection of memory--individuals in the same household remembering things in vastly different ways.  Although Booth is the younger brother, he saw his mother leave and was given the task of taking care of Lincoln--though he was certainly not old enough for this kind of responsibility.

"People are funny about they Lincoln shit.  Its historical.  People like they historical shit in a certain way.  They like it to unfold the way they folded it up.  Neatly like a book.  Not raggedy and bloody and screaming." 
-Topdog/Underdog, Scene 3  


Of Thee I Sing by George Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Ira Gershwin (1932)

Summary:  Political handlers have decided that the best platform for presidential hopeful Mr. Wintergreen to run on is love.  After all, Americans can't resist a good love story.  They create a pageant, where the lucky winner will follow Wintergreen to the White House and assume the position of First Lady.  Meanwhile, Wintergreen falls in love with Mary (a campaign worker who makes dynamite corn muffins).  Wintergreen wins the election, the country falls in love with Mary and pageant winner Diana returns to stir up some conflict.

  Antics for days!  This is the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize, and one of the only comedies to win the award in the 20s or 30s (the 1937 winner was also a comedy and also written by Kaufman).  Much like State of the Union (1946), this play caters to America's fascination with the inner workings of politics.  An overall message of "those people in Washington don't know what they're doing any better than you do."

The humor in this play remains relatively intact.  Though sexist statements about women date the play, they also give it a sort of antique charm.  Like State of the Union and You Can't Take It With You, the humor in this play is smart an exists on numerous levels (dialogue, puns, zany plot antics).  The play contains a running gag about a man named Mr. Throttlebottom.  No one can ever remember his name, why he is there or what he does.  Throttlebottom himself doesn't seem to understand the duties of Vice President (which he is!) because no one can explain them to him.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Beyond the Horizon by Eugene O'Neill (1920)

Summary:  In Act 1, the Mayo family is preparing for the departure of their son Robert who plans to go on a three year sea-voyage with his uncle.  Because he has never been one for farming, his mother and father feel that the trip will be a great way for him to find himself while his younger brother Andrew (a natural farmer) stays at home and possibly starts a relationship with Ruth (the girl he spends most of his time with).  Hours before he is supposed to leave, Robert reveals to Ruth that he has always loved her; because she elatedly reciprocates, he decides to stay.  Andy, angry and heartbroken, hastily decides he will go on the voyage instead--a distressing revelation to both of his parents.

Act 2 opens three years later.  Robert and Ruth are decidedly unhappy, have an infant child and the farm is steadily declining.  In a moment of intense anger, Ruth reveals to Robert that she has always loved Andrew.  Moments later, Andrew enters--back from a successful journey.

Five years later, Act 3 begins and things have gotten markedly worse.  The infant has died, the marriage is miserable and Robert has a terminal illness.  Andrew returns with a specialist to take care of Robert, and Robert makes his wife and brother promise to marry after his death.  They try to argue with him as he draws his dying breath.  The play ends with Ruth and Andrew looking at each other, not sure what to do.

  I have put off reading this play for weeks because it is one of the longest, but I really enjoyed it.  While it is another in a long line of plays about unhappy families, O'Neill's writing stands alone (meaning:  I don't think I necessarily need to see this play to fully appreciate the story/characters).

As a sickly young child, Robert spent much of his time looking "beyond the horizon" and imagining what was "out there" waiting for him.  Because he chose to stay at home, he never got to discover the world and was left with a pile of what-ifs and might-have-beens.

Hell Bent Fer Heaven by Hatcher Hughes (1924)

Summary:  Sid Hunt has just returned from World War I and declares his intent to marry Jude Lowry; even though his brother Rufe also wants her.  Meanwhile, Andy Lowry (the postman and Jude's brother) shows up and a decades-old feud between the two families is discussed.  After some prohibited drinking, Andy states that he intends to settle the score and sets out to kill Sid.

Ultimately, in a quest to have Jude for himself, Rufe attempts to murder his own brother by blowing up a dam that Sid will be be crossing (to get away from Andy).  A devoutly religious man, Rufe states that God commanded the killing.  While all of this action is taking place, unprecedented rainfall threatens flooding and necessitates evacuation--and Rufe is left without a space in the boat (which the family just happens to have on hand).  Rufe is unsympathetically told that, if God actually mandated the killing, He will protect Rufe during this trial.

Thoughts:  This is another play written in "dialect" that took me hours to read.  The Hunts and Lowries are mountain people from North Carolina and this is reflected in every line of their dialogue.  This play is a rather bleak examination of human nature--greedy and grudge-filled.  While family allegiance is a major subject of the play, Hughes' work also reflects the idea that individuals fight with their own families in ways that they would not even consider in the "outside" world.

Friday, October 22, 2010

They Knew What They Wanted by Sidney Howard (1925)

Summary:  Tony is a sixty-year-old Italian immigrant with a vineyard and more money than he knows what to do with.  After a trip to San Fransisco, he writes a letter to a young waitress he saw there asking her to marry him and come live on the vineyard.  Upon arrival, she is surprised to discover that Tony sent her a picture of Joe (whose stage directions specify that he is "dark, sloppy, beautiful and young") instead of himself.  Regardless, she agrees to marry him but ends up having a one-time sexual encounter with Joe on the night she is married to Tony.  A few months later, the doctor reveals that she is pregnant.  Subsequently, she tells Tony that she has no choice but to leave for an uncertain life of poverty and strife with Joe.  Tony convinces her to stay, stating that he will raise the baby as his own.  Joe seems relieved.

Thoughts:  Another play with an overly detailed plot summary.  All of the action of this play takes place at the vineyard, often with Tony holding court (due to an accident that broke both of his legs).  Outsiders are involved in Tony and Amy's business because Tony, good natured Italian that he is, talks to anyone about everything. 

Some of the most interesting things about this play have nothing to do with the plot or individual relationships between characters.  Instead, commentary about prohibition, Catholics, unions, science versus religion, abortion, immigration and race relations are hidden behind a fairly general play about family and marriage.  This play is set in prohibition-era California and Tony's vineyard is hugely profitable because it has continued to illegally make wine.  Meanwhile, Father McKee (the somehow always present Catholic priest) issues statements about his discomfort surrounding Tony marrying someone who is not Catholic and wine being used for purposes other than sacramental (this does not mean that he doesn't drink it when it is offered).  McKee's sparring partner in the play is The Doctor, who not only reveals to Joe that Amy is pregnant (before telling Amy), but refers to wine as poison and is frequently bemused by the "Wop antics" that surround him.

When dark, sloppy beautiful Joe (a member of the Wobblies--Industrial Workers of the World) indirectly suggests abortion to Amy, she replies, "Them kind of doctors is no good.  They're no good.  I'm too far gone anyway...I know...and anyway..doing that...It's worse than the other" (Act 3).  This statement reveals that Amy knows something about abortion--and perhaps has even had one before.

The often controversial social statements are always quick and usually argued from two perspectives--perhaps in a move of self-protection by playwright Sidney Howard.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Icebound by Owen Davis (1923)

Summary:  The Jordan siblings have gathered to await the death of their mother, but it rapidly becomes clear that they are actually eagerly anticipating the reading of her will.  They are all surprised to discover that she has (spitefully) left the sizable family fortune to second-cousin Jane.  The plot thickens when Jane is presented with a letter from Mrs. Jordan that details her dying wish:  for her youngest son Ben to be taken care of--by any means necessary.  Though Ben is a fugitive and widely believed to be "good for nothing" Jane falls in love with him--with some ambiguity about whether this newfound love is due to his charm or her loyalty to Mrs. Jordan.  Ben has some inappropriate relations with another "almost relative" named Nettie, but ultimately ends up proposing to Jane.  The two will live "happily ever after" on the farm and fortune left by Mother Jones.

Thoughts:  The summary of this play is likely more detailed than the actual plot.  No one seems to care that a borderline incestuous marriage is about to take place, nor are they outwardly grieving the death of their family matriarch.  At various points throughout the play, each character displays their propensity for greed at the expense of their relationships with each other.  It is never clear that Jane and Ben actually love one-another, but both seem ready to settle and stay in one place.  Yet another play about a family whose "problems" could likely all be solved...if anyone actually cared enough to solve them.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright (2004)

Summary:  Doug Wright's Introduction explains that the play is "a one-woman show, performed by a man" (xix).  Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is an East Berlin transvestite who has managed to survive both the Nazis and the Communists and lives to tell about it as she guides audiences through her home--which is a sort of collector's museum.  One actor plays thirty-six characters (including the playwright) in a style reminiscent of the ethnographic performances of Anna Deavere-Smith.

  This play is unlike anything else on the list of plays that have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize.  Currently, it is the only one-person show on the list and it is one of the only plays that is decidedly not about American Life (which the guidelines suggest/mandate).  The other plays that I have encountered thus far that are not about "American Life" are Ruined and The Diary of Anne Frank.  An argument could be made that all three of these plays deal with issues/people that America should have cared about, but instead turned a blind eye to (genocide in the Congo, Holocaust, Communist persecution). 

One of the most compelling parts of Wright's text is the Introduction where he details the practical and emotional experience of writing this play.  He collected hundreds of hours of interviews and then was at a loss about how to put them all together.  Eventually, his colleague Robert Blacker suggested, "Whatever you do, don't write a play about history.  Write a play about your love affair with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.  If you're lucky, the requisite history will take care of itself."   Wright replies, "It was the most liberating gift a fellow artist could give; permission to write my own story.  For the first time, the play's structure dawned on me.  It wouldn't be a straight-forward biographical drama; it would chart my own relationship with my heroine" (xv).

Wright does an excellent job of showcasing Charlotte while using the other characters to propel the narrative; but, at times, it seems that the other characters are present for the sole purpose of providing dramatic structure.  This play is moving and important, but much of it's critical acclaim should be credited to Jefferson Mays--the actor who won a Tony Award for bringing Wright's complicated text (and the complicated character of Charlotte) to life onstage.
Inscribed copy of I Am My Own Wife.  Gift from Jessica Watkins (who worked with Doug Wright at the La Jolla Playhouse, 2009). 

The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (1956)

Summary:  Thirteen year-old Anne and her family are hiding in an attic to escape discovery and capture by the Nazis.  They are joined in their confined space by the Van Daan family and a dentist named Dr. Dussel.  Eight people and a cat attempt to survive on stolen food rations while sticking to a strict nocturnal schedule to avoid capture.  Eventually, as it begins to look like the war is ending and they will be liberated, they are all captured and sent to separate concentration camps.

Thoughts:  I wasn't looking forward to reading this play, perhaps because I knew the ending, perhaps because I remember not reading the book when it was assigned circa eighth grade.  Yesterday, I complained about the lack of action in my recent reads and was certain that this play would be the same.  Instead, though the play is confined to an extremely tight area, it is largely dependent on action rather than narrative or relationships between characters.  Each time there is a knock at the door, both the characters and the audience wonder what surprises Miep has in store...or if the families in hiding have finally met their end.  Because we know how the play will end, the repeated visits from Miep create narrative tension that closely mirrors the emotional tension that each additional month in the attic causes.

While the play is obviously called The Diary of Anne Frank, the adaptation from Frank's text tells the story of the time spent in the attic--not always from her perspective.  All of the characters are well-developed and are each given the opportunity to show their multi-faceted personalities--which inevitably change under the stress of circumstance.  Though Anne becomes more important as the play progresses, this play is not full of huge monologues or chunks from the diary as I imagined that it would be.

Additionally, I think that using this play as part of a unit would be extremely beneficial for teachers required to teach Anne Frank's actual diary.  The Goodrich/Hackett adaptation piques interest in individual characters and made me wonder about what else Anne has to say about them in a diary that spans more than two years.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Shrike by Joseph Kramm (1952)

Summary:  Jim finds himself in a mental institution after a failed suicide attempt.  He frustrates doctors by telling them that he's not really sure why he tried to commit suicide--only giving them a number of vague reasons.  Instead of being discharged a few days after his intake, he is moved to an observation floor where he learns that he is going to have to "play ball" to get discharged--or else he is going to be sent to the state hospital.  Meanwhile, his wife Ann (they have been separated for three months) sees this as an opportunity to get him back.  We infer that she has asked doctors to keep him for a few extra days so that she can clean out his bachelor pad and make him dependent on her once again.

Thoughts:  Another in a series of plays (that I have read for this project) that is entirely dependent on interpersonal relationships rather than action or memorable dialogue.  Frustratingly, Jim never offers a concrete answer for why he attempted suicide--just general feelings of vague unhappiness and regret.  At the end of the play, his doctor is discharging him even though he knows that Jim has simply learned how to play the game.  We know that Jim is not better, nor is he in love with Ann (as he now claims to her and various doctors).  The last line of the play is a phone call with Ann where he announces his discharge from the hospital, asks her to pick him up and asks her to bring a necktie with him--after ties have been conspicuously absent from the entire play.

Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley (1981)

Summary:  The Magrath sisters have returned to their family home after youngest sister Babe has been arrested for shooting her husband.  They revisit old arguments (and old boyfriends) and seem to argue that, though we age and move apart, the way we interact with our relatives never really changes.

Thoughts:  Another play about a family that fights, but also loves each other very much.  While the catalyst for the reunion (Babe's newly minted murderous tendencies) is certainly flashy, the interactions of the Magrath sisters are fairly banal.  Additionally, we can't hate Babe too much because her husband had been abusing her for years.  However, additional dramatic tension is added by the fact that Babe has been having an affair with a fifteen year-old black boy (and there are pictures!  Scandalous!)  Though the murder and subsequent meetings with the lawyer are certainly important to the advancement of the plot, this play is fundamentally about the relationship between sisters.  It seems obvious from the outset that Babe is not going to spend any time in jail, but worrying about it gives the sisters something to do besides fight with each other.

All The Way Home by Tad Mosel (1961)

Summary:  The Follet Family is spread out across Tennessee and meet together in Act One for an annual picnic where familial tensions and allegiances are explored for the first time. The family quietly notes that this will probably be the last time they see their Great Grandma. In Act 2, a phone call summons Jay home because his own aging father (John Henry) is in some sort of medical trouble. He makes the trip and subsequently calls home to say that he will be back home soon because it was a false alarm. When he doesn't come home, the phone eventually rings again to inform his pregnant wife Mary that he has been instantly killed in an accident. The third and final act of the play is set in the hours before the funeral, and once again explores how families interact with each other in times of both normalcy and tragedy.

Thoughts:  This play is an adaptation of James Agee's novel A Death in the Family (which also won a Pulitzer Prize). Though the play is set in 1915 and contains references to the "war between the states" and repeated usages of the N-word, it retains timeless appeal because it examines the way that normal families interact--strained individual relationships and a common bond. I think that this play will continue to retain much of its timelessness because of the central idea that families (consciously or unconsciously) prepare for certain deaths, but not others.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein (1989)

Summary:  The play follows Heidi over the course of 30 years--from her time in high school to her successful career as an art historian.  Several characters play varying degrees in importance in her life over the years, both romantically and not.  Sometimes Heidi is happy, sometimes she is not, but it seems that she is never fully satisfied.

Thoughts:  I understand why this play is important--especially for female audiences in the late eighties.  Many of the scenes chronicle Heidi's experiences with feminism--"rap sessions" conspicuously set in liberal university towns (Ann Arbor) and protests about the absence of female artists on the walls of prestigious galleries.  Heidi's "one that got away" ends up unhappy in his marriage (thus kissing her on his wedding day, obviously) and her "maybe it could work" eventually comes out to her.  The play seems to ultimately state that though women can be "liberated", they can't have it all.  The last scene of the play reveals Heidi with her adopted baby; but despite her successful career, good group of friends and new baby...she still seems to feel incomplete without a man.  I know that this play is often referenced in discussions about feminism in drama, but I found it to be largely anti-feminist.

Interestingly, it contained the first reference to AIDS that I have encountered thus far in the project.  Though the word AIDS is never mentioned, Peter has a monologue about the difficulty of attending multiple New York City funerals with the same cause of death.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds by Paul Zindel (1971)

Summary:  Beatrice lives at home with her two daughters (Tillie and Ruth), an elderly woman named Nanny (whose family pays for her to be there) and a rabbit (who things cannot end well for).  Beatrice is emotionally abusive to her two daughters, likely drinks too much and frequently makes Tillie stay home from school to help her with Nanny and various chores around the house.  The dramatic action of the play changes when the school calls home to report that Tillie is a finalist in the school science fair.

Thoughts:  In the Introduction, Zindel writes, "I suspect it is autobiographical, because whenever I see a production of it I laugh and cry harder than anyone else in the audience."  This statement creates immediate sympathy for the author because, from start-to-finish, Beatrice is a character who no child should ever be subjected to.  Zindel's body of work includes an overwhelming majority of young adult novels.  This play, like most of those books, contains a strong moral that children are individuals, not just extensions of their parents.  Despite a horrendous upbringing, they can experience joy and ultimately triumph.

Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (2005)

Summary:  Sister Aloysius is convinced that Father Flynn has had an inappropriate relationship with Donald Muller--a twelve year old in the parish.  She is hellbent on getting him fired and Sister James, an eager young nun, is not sure who to believe.

Thoughts:  After writing about reading Harvey, Our Town and Fences after seeing them on stage/film, I began to wonder if reading a play after you have seen it performed completely changes the experience.  While I have seen the 2008 film version of Doubt (directed by the playwright) I did not find myself constantly thinking about the inflections of Streep, Hoffman and Adams while reading this text.  Shanley's precise writing enables the text to stand alone.  With or without performance, this piece of writing is remarkable.  The language of Doubt is uncomplicated and (perhaps because of this) the dialogue moves rapidly.  The play is one of the fastest reads I have encountered in the project.

Additionally, Shanley's Prologue explains that this play was inspired by his own experiences as a child of the 60s in a strict Catholic school.  Speaking prosaically about the tension between doubt and certainty, this piece of the text is evidence that Shanley writes well in a variety of genres (he does have an Oscar for Moonstruck, after all).  Go to a bookstore and read the Prologue.  It will probably make you want to read the play.

"We've got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty.  There is no last word.  That's the silence under the chatter of our time."
-end of the Prologue

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938)

Summary:  A Stage Manager leads audiences through the fictional town of Grover's Corners in three acts:  Daily Life, Love and Marriage, Death and Eternity.  The Stage Manager remains central to the narrative as we watch other characters age, marry and eventually die.  A primary appeal of the play is that this town could be any town--just like yours or mine, with people reminiscent of our own neighbors.

Thoughts:  It seems crazy to me that I made it out of high school without reading this play, but I did.  Though this is a predecessor to Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (1943 Pulitzer Prize), the playwright's ability to handle an extremely broad scope of material through individual (perhaps archetypal?) characters is astounding.  People continue to produce Our Town because it is essentially timeless.  Though the actions of the family sometimes date the play (chopping wood for mother, going on dates to get ice cream sodas), their feelings about the subjects listed in the three acts are inherently relatable, if not universal.

In February of 2009, director David Cromer mounted a new production of Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre in New York.  The production raked in critical acclaim, with Cromer starring as the Stage Manager.  During the two and a half year run, several actors have played the Stage Manager including:  David Cromer, Stephen Kunken, Michael Shannon, Michael McKean and Helen Hunt.  The show closed on September 12, 2010 with Cromer reprising his role as the Stage Manager for the final performance days before it was announced that he was the recipient of a 2010 MacArthur Genius Grant.

I also had the privilege of seeing this production (on the same day as Fences, actually).  Michael Shannon's performance was absolutely unbelievable; but the other actors were sometimes distractingly bad, other times simply not remarkable.  The most stunning moment I have ever seen in theatre or film happened in the middle of the third act and I left the theatre knowing that it was something that I would never forget.

"...That is the sole extraordinary touch in a production that is in most ways ordinary, and I think purposely and profitably so. Wilder sought to make sacraments of simple things. In “Our Town” he cautioned us to recognize that life is both precious and ordinary, and that these two fundamental truths are intimately connected."
-Charles Isherwood:  The New York Times, February 27, 2009.

Fences by August Wilson (1987)

Personal photo:  Fences at The Cort Theatre.  1 May 2010.
Summary:  The play takes place in front of 53 year-old Troy Maxon's house.  Alternately, Troy has conversations with his friend Bono, his wife Rose, his sons Cory and Lyons and his mentally disabled brother Gabriel.  Through these interactions, Troy's life story is revealed including a distant past that involves a previous marriage and prison time, and a current affair with a woman named Alberta.  Spliced throughout these interactions are Troy's monologues about facing death and direct-address to Death...staying that whenever He comes, Troy will be waiting.  Ultimately, the family finds themselves back in the front yard preparing for Troy's funeral--eight years after the start of the play.

  This was my second read of this play, and in the middle of my readings I was fortunate enough to see the Kenny Leon-directed production starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis (who both won Tony Awards for their performances).  While I really liked the play the first time, the second read was infused with the voices of Washington and Davis.  Much like the Jimmy Stewart effect on Harvey, my memories of the performance greatly enhanced my second reading experience.

Our seats were about three rows from the back of the theatre (photo above taken from my seat); but the work of Davis and Washington was palpable throughout the entire space.  The audience was at least 85% black...and very vocally responsive to the action on stage.  When Troy confesses his affair, there was a collective gasp in the audience.  Moments later when he reveals that he has no plans to stop seeing Alberta because she makes him feel something, there were groans and clucking noises of disbelief and judgment.  At the climax of his revelations, he informs Rose that Alberta is pregnant.  At this point, a woman in the orchestra section loudly shouted, "Get him!" to Rose onstage.  While reading this scene, I vividly remembered not only these outbursts but the effect that having to hold for these responses had on the rhythm of the scene.

Although The New York Times had positively reviewed Washington's performance, I was skeptical.  Struggling actor friends had expressed their displeasure with the fact that two very successful film actors were taking Broadway jobs that could have been given to actors who actually needed the money.  Moments before the production began, my friend Nick gave voice to my own skepticism.  He said, "I mean....yes...Denzel is a good actor, but I feel like I am always seeing a different version of him instead of an actual character."  Fifteen minutes into the play, we both knew that this was performance was different.  The only time I felt like I was watching Denzel Washington was when he entered for the first time and the swoons of the audience overpowered the action on stage.  Otherwise, the performances of both Washington and Davis were so powerful that I literally held my breath during each of their longer monologues.
Personal photo:  Fences with Nick and Ryan at The Cort Theatre.  1 May 2010.
"Some people build fences to keep people out...
and other people build fences to keep people in." 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

You Can't Take it With You by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman (1937)

Summary:  The Vanderhof family is not like other families of 1937.  Or of any decade, really.  From the opening scene, we see that visual eccentricities abound:  mother is writing plays while offering treats from a skull-shaped candy dish, father is in the basement creating special fireworks for the fourth of July.  Their own personal oddities have never proven a problem before, but Alice (the family's youngest daughter) is soon-to-be engaged to Tony Kirby--a young man from a society upbringing.  Alice attempts to ready her family for a dinner party involving Tony's relatives...but all goes to hell when the Kirby family arrives for dinner a day early.

Thoughts:  The family in this play reminded me of Augusten Burrough's makeshift relatives in Running with Scissors.  While their lifestyle works for them, it isn't the most presentable or understandable to outsiders.  Though the family is the meat of this production, there are also some rich "color" characters including Gay Wellington ("an actress, a nymphomaniac and a terrible souse"), Kolenkov (a very large, very male Russian ballet teacher) and The Grand Duchess (a Russian princess...of course).

The humor in this play has remained almost entirely intact, even after 73 years.

If ever I were to be given the opportunity to do a large-scale production with a diverse group of friends, this would be it.  The antics in this play generate madcap humor; but there is also a remarkable amount of heart involved in the struggle to accept the family you were born into.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Abe Lincoln in Illinois by Robert Sherwood (1939)

Summary:  This play chronicles 30 early years in the life of Abraham Lincoln.  The opening scene depicts him being tutored (around high school age) and the final scene is his farewell to Illinois immediately before leaving for Washington, D.C.

This play was a little dull, but raised a number of historical "did that actually happen?" questions for me.  Lincoln's humanity is most vividly depicted early in the play when he reveals his romantic feelings to a girl named Ann...who dies a few pages later.  He later convinces himself that marrying ambitious Mary Todd is the right decision, though feelings of romance toward her are never illuminated.  Clearly, Lincoln's oratorical skills warranted exploration which results in this play having a number of long sweeping monologues, most about labor and abolition.  This is another play whose audience enjoyment would depend almost entirely on the strength of the lead actor.

The Gassner/Barnes introduction revealed a number of interesting facts about Robert Sherwood.  As a teenager, he attended Milton Academy and then Harvard, where he "survived the threat of three expulsions for youthful capers and became an active member of the Hasty Pudding Club."  Additionally, Sherwood is responsible for writing The Best Years of Our Lives which happens to be one of my most cherished movies.  Near the end of the short biography, Gassner/Barnes remark, "The rest of his career, which included conspicuous assistance to to President Roosevelt and the invaluable service in the O.W.I. belongs to political history" (306).  An interesting followup to Archibald MacLeish, it seems.

"Ran into Stephen Douglas--and we had some argument in public..."

Sunday, October 3, 2010

J.B.: A Play in Verse by Archibald MacLeish (1959)

Summary:  Mr. Zuss and Mr. Nickles are omnipresent narrators who guide us through the story of J.B. (a modern-day Job) and his family.   Occasionally, they are joined by "Distant Voice", who we can surmise is God.  After individually revealing each of J.B.'s trials, they return to the scene to swap some theological banter and guide us into the next depiction of things getting progressively worse for the wounded protagonist.

  Ashamedly, I groaned a little when I discovered that this was a 153 page "play in verse."  Wrong!  So wrong!  Structurally, this play is one of the most sound and interesting I have encountered in the project.  With Zuss and Nickles as guides, MacLeish facilitates the telling of a Biblical story in a very human and potentially timeless way.  As things go from wonderful to terrible for J.B. and his wife, their roles and thoughts about God are essentially reversed. 

We know from the outset that, after J.B. has endured all the trails that God has in store for him, things will get better; but MacLeish masterfully makes each new heartbreak a deeper descent into darkness. 

I think my fourth grade brain added the word "rhyming" to the subtitle "a play in verse."  While it did not rhyme, the language of this play was stunning, and for me, reminiscent of the often theological patriotism of Norman Corwin.  For those keeping score at home, MacLeish holds two additional Pulitzer Prizes (for Poetry), an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Because he wasn't busy enough, he also served as the first Librarian of Congress...and came up with the idea that the United States should have a poet laureate.

I can already say that when I finish this project, one of the most substantial riches I will have gained is the discovery of Archibald MacLeish.

No Place To Be Somebody by Charles Cordone (1970)

Summary:  Johnny Williams is a young black man who owns a bar in New York City in/around the late 1960s.  The people who come in and out of the bar have their own set of agendas and each character fulfills a very specific role/purpose.

Thoughts:  The summary above is probably the most insufficient I've written since starting this project.  There's no way to compactly summarize this play without a scene-by-scene plot description and an annotated character list.  Much like The Time of Your Life (1940), the dramatic action of this play is dependent on the actors who enter and exit the bar, but unlike ...Life, there is an enormous amount of action in this play.  The play makes a number of statements about race, ethnicity and gender in the way that it casts it's characters.  For example, the primary female characters (Dee, Evie) are whores, and the only other important female in the play is Mary Lou--a white civil rights activist who is ultimately used only as a pawn because her father is a judge and Johnny is trying to outsmart some Italian mobsters.

Most of the statements about equality and civil rights are relegated to Gabe, the poet of the group who is given long soliloquies in the form of poems that talk about black anger, white oppression and the relationship between whites and blacks in the 70s.  Gabe's statements are often eloquent, but sometimes seemed forced in a play that details the day-to-day activities of a bar.  At intervals throughout the play, a character will say something to the effect of, "Gabe!  Give us a poem now!" and the soliloquy/diatribe/important social message will begin.

Additionally, the subplot involving Johnny and the mobsters seems incredibly out of place.  With a few days distance, it almost feels like Cordone wrote a play about a bar and the characters who come through the doors, didn't think it was enough and needed to add another element of drama.  Though this play is unquestionably important (first black playwright and first off-Broadway play to win a Pulitzer), I found a surprising number of flaws.

The Gin Game by D.L. Coburn (1978)

Summary:  Fonsia and Weller are two senior citizens who have recently moved into a retirement home, are bored and discover that they both enjoy playing cards--specifically gin.  Fonsia's relentless winning streak is a catalyst for Weller's violent temper and hurtful outbursts.

Thoughts:  The dialogue in this play was reminiscent of Edward Albee--even when people are bored, they keep talking, even if it is seemingly about nothing.  Additionally, the more comfortable people become with each other, the more prone they are to revealing their true characteristics, particularly propensity toward anger.

This play was originally directed by Mike Nichols and starred Jessica Tandy (Tony Award) and her husband Hume I can only imagine that the performance was expert.  Having seen countless high schoolers interpret scenes from this play, I also know that it can be disastrous in incapable hands.
Tandy and Cronyn at the 1988 Emmy Awards.
(photo credit:  Alan Light, Wikimedia)

Picnic by William Inge (1953)

Summary: Madge and Millie Owens are two sisters of "marrying age" who are preparing for a town picnic. While this is a relatively normal event, the stakes are raised when Hal Carter, a boy with a past, appears and is set up with Millie--the smarter and less attractive of the Owens sisters.  While Millie prepares for her first real date, mutual attraction develops between Madge (practically engaged to Hal's friend Alan) and Hal. This attraction results in a rape (?).  Ultimately, Madge states that she has feelings for him and is leaving her family behind to chase him on a train.

Thoughts: This play seemed a whole lot more banal until I typed, "This attraction results in a rape (?)"  The play was originally produced in 1953, and stereotypical gender roles are evident throughout. Mr. Owens is never seen and Mrs. Owens only infrequently refers to him, always with undertones of "that good for nothing I lusted after back in the day." Additionally, there is a pack of schoolteachers who are relegated to "old maid" status, until one of them essentially bullies a man into marrying her and whisking her away from her humdrum life. Well, come to think of it, this play is an interesting examination of gender, especially in rural landscapes of the 1950s. The entire play takes place on/around the front yards surrounding two porches and the setting and accompanying mentality reminded me of very much of Oklahoma!

"We're not goin' on no God-damn picnic."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Seascape by Edward Albee (1975)

Summary:  Nancy and Charlie are a married couple with adult children, taking a holiday on the beach.  They discuss the state of their union, and are eventually startled by another couple in the distance.  As the other couple (Leslie and Sarah) becomes clear that they are creatures from the sea! 

Thoughts:  Thought number one:  Frank Langella (Leslie, original 1975 cast) as a merman?  What!?  Eventually, during an argument Charlie states, "All you're going to do is explain evolution to a couple of lizards."  This is the only hint at what these creatures might actually be. 

The entire first act is an examination of Nancy and Charlie's marriage and overall state of satisfaction with each other and the life they have created.  Neither one of them are tragically unhappy, but they both seem comfortably restless.  In typical Albee fashion, the dialogue is an accurate and moving representation of the way people actually fight with each other--sometimes rationally, often not.  When they eventually begin communicating with their new lizard acquaintances in Act 2, the relationships between couples and female/male allegiance are examined.  That is, Nancy comes to Charlie's defense because she is married to him...but also shares intimate secrets with Sarah because they are both child-bearing females.  Testosterone rages as Leslie and Charlie have a physical altercation.

This was, in the words of my professor Brian Herrera, a "WTF moment" for me.  Certainly both couples are interesting representations of marriage/partnership, but why creatures from the sea, Edward Albee?

"What do they call it...the primordial soup?  the glop?  That heartbreaking second when it all got together, the sugars and acids and the ultraviolets, and the next thing you knew there were tangerines and string quartets."