Monday, October 17, 2011

The Grim Reaper Pays A Visit

Once you're born, you're going to die. The real questions are how, where, when, and why.

This isn't any kind of secret. Nor does it require a degree in rocket science to understand the beginning and end points of the cycle of life (unless, of course, your name is Virginia Foxx).

Just as no two zebras have identical stripes, no two humans have identical fingerprints. No two people (with the possible exception of conjoined twins) live identical lives.

Whether one dies in a fiery auto collision, while taking a nap, or at the hands of a murderer, death is as resolute as it is absolute. Reliance on faith, cryogenics, or miracles is futile. Visits from the grim reaper may be temporarily postponed but, like the onset of night, darkness eventually falls.

Not everyone has the luxury of dying with dignity. Two new plays receiving their world premieres from Bay area theatre companies take the death process very seriously. In one, a son helps his aging mother through her final months of life as her strength ebbs and she loses her battle with cancer. In another, a nurse working in a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina helps the sick, destitute, and exhausted musical mentor from her childhood make his transition from life to death.

Soon after April 19, 1945, when Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical, Carousel, made its Broadway debut at the Majestic Theatre, "You'll Never Walk Alone" became a popular anthem for those grieving the loss of a loved one. In the following video clip, Shirley Verrett (who appeared in the 1994 Lincoln Center revival) sings the song during the Tony Awards show.

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As part of its co-production agreement with the Seattle Repertory Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre recently presented the world premiere of Bill Cain's largely autobiographical play, How To Write A New Book For The Bible.  A Jesuit priest who has worked very closely with Marin Theatre Company in recent years, Cain's play is based on the diaries he kept during the six months he cared for his dying mother.

How To Write A New Book For The Bible, however, is by no means a downer. Cain's family is smart, feisty, romantic, and incredibly stubborn. He happily acknowledges moments where he has drifted away from the words he actually wrote in his diary (as well as the fact that his play was written as a vehicle for "an older actress").

The result? This is an exceptionally strong script that glows with the intimacy of life within a functional (rather than dysfunctional) family; a family whose sheer tenacity has gotten it through hard times.

As the action jumps back and forth between flashbacks and the present, Cain's characters effortlessly adjust to different phases of their life by shedding a sweater, walking a bit stiffer, or fondly recreating a moment with the glow of a treasured memory. I can't recall another playwright who has used this technique with such blazing dexterity. As Cain explains:
"The play focuses on three people: my father, my mother and my brother. These are exquisite human beings, and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them. I have a huge sense of the blessing of my parents’ lives being passed to the next generation, and I wanted to make a ritual of that passage of life visible."
Aaron Blakeley, Tyler Pierce, Linda Gehringer, and Leo Marks in
How To Write A New Book For The Bible (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

One would be wrong to assume that all of the play's emotionality focuses on Mary, the dying mother.  The memory of a Halloween that was nearly ruined by a dropped pumpkin (that was put back together again with toothpicks by Bill's father) has an unbelievable sweetness.

The depiction of how Bill comforted his older brother (a Vietnam War veteran) when Paul suffered a panic attack during their nighttime visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is an exquisitely written scene that captures the pure magic of theatrical storytelling. It's the kind of scene that offers audiences a rare moment to witness an honest and painful moment of vulnerability shared by two grown men.

Of the four-member ensemble, two of the men take on a variety of roles. Aaron Blakely appears as Bill's older brother and a young doctor. Leo Marks portrays Bill's eternally optimistic father, Pete, as well as tackling some minor roles.

By and large, the stage belongs to Tyler Pierce as Mary's favorite child (the one who became a priest and writer but is never considered to really have a job) as well as the radiant Linda Gehringer as his mother. Fiercely addicted to sports, hiding her cigarettes in the bathroom, or refusing to give Bill an important message because she is "on strike," this is not the traditional vision of "Mother Mary, full of grace."

Linda Gehringer gives a bravura performance as Mary Cain in
How To Write A New book For The Bible (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Production values are notable for the simple elegance of Scott Bradley's unit set and Callie Floor's costumes. The Act I finale, in which circles of the stage floor are removed to reveal ghostly rays of light, leaves audiences with a shocked and silent sense of dramatic wonder. Kent Nicholson's tender, loving stage direction is greatly enhanced by Matt Starritt's sound design. As the evening progresses, one can't help but sit back in admiration of the high level of theatrical craft on display.

Tyler Pierce as Bill in the Berkeley Rep's world premiere of
How To Write A New Book For The Bible (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

As Bill, Tyler Pierce guides the audience through his family's history, each character's lovable (and occasionally galling) idiosyncrasies, and their deepening sense of family responsibility from cradle to grave and beyond. The Berkeley Rep's thrust stage brings audiences closer to the emotional conflicts, intellectual challenges, and steadfast loyalty of each character. As the playwright stresses:
"I hope audiences walk away with a great sense of joy, walk away carrying less fear about how life ends. My parents both gave off light as they died, and they found a way to make their deaths a summation of the goodness they had received and given for their whole lives. The play is very funny. I think the reason for that is my parents understood that death does not negate life, but it’s one of the things in life. I hope the play works as a celebration of all of the darkness and light and not just some of it. I think of the play as joyous. I don’t feel any regrets about any of the events of the play. Compassion certainly. I feel that my parents and my brother are absolutely exquisite people and I see the play as a celebration of them."

Linda Gehringer and Tyler Pierce in a scene from
How To Write A New book For The Bible (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

With so much of September and October having been filled with pompous political bullshit and privileged ingratitude, Bill Cain's play offers a blessed relief from our society's incredible lack of sensitivity. This wonderfully theatrical journey offers audiences a chance to embrace the genuine warmth and rigorous emotional heat of a tightly-knit nuclear family. 

Give yourself a pre-Thanksgiving treat by purchasing tickets to Cain's play as a warm-up exercise for November's traditional holiday which, rather than being devoted to bargain hunting, was created so people could give thanks for the blessings in their lives. Performances of How To Write A New Book For The Bible continue at Berkeley Rep through November 20 (you can order tickets here).

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I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Clementine in the Lower 9, which just received its world premiere from TheatreWorks down in Mountain View. Unfortunately, this new drama has some distinct problems: most notably, a lack of emotional buy-in from the audience.

Conceived as a "bluesy riff" on the Agamemnon legend, Dan Dietz's story has plenty of soul and character but struggles to achieve enough clarity and credibility to catch fire. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Clementine in the Lower 9 revolves around the following five characters:
  • Clementine (Laiona Michelle) is an African American woman trying to rebuild her family home after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Lower Ninth Ward. As a child, she learned how to play piano from an older man who gave her confidence and helped her to understand the power of music and, more specifically, the blues. Clementine met her good-for-nothing husband when he was playing horn in a band that needed a pianist. Although he left New Orleans shortly after Katrina blew through town (in hopes of finding some work playing his horn in Houston), Clementine gave up playing piano about 10 years ago, when she became a registered nurse and was able to earn a steady income with which to support her children while her husband was wasted on drugs or booze.
  • Reginald (Matt Jones) is Clementine's teenaged son, a student at Columbia University who wants to go to law school.  After Hurricane Katrina, Reginald received so much pity from guilty liberals he met in New York that he ended up receiving three iPods. A champion on his high school debate team, he has returned to New Orleans to help his mother fix up their home. At this point in his life, Reginald has stopped believing his father's bullshit. As much as he aches for his independence, Reginald and Clementine both know that blood is thicker than water
Jaffy (Jack Koenig) plays his horn while his son
Reginald (Matt Jones)looks on in Clementine in the Lower 9
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)
  • Jaffy (Jack Koenig) is Clementine's husband who, during the years when Reginald was a young boy, was often drunk, doing drugs, or being generally worthless as a father. His return home to New Orleans brings some unexpected shocks for his wife: a fistful of money he won from the lottery and a mysterious runaway white girl who is obviously a junkie.
  • Cassy (Jayne Deely) is supposedly Jaffy's key to the future. Though mostly uncommunicative, when she is not sleeping or vomiting, she claims to talk to Apollo, who gave her the ability to see into the future.
  • Chorus (Kenny Brawner) is a blues musician and shapeshifter who narrates, sings the blues, tickles the ivories, and portrays the dying man who was once Clementine's childhood mentor.
Reginald (Matt Jones) struggles to communicate with Cassy,
the runaway drug addict (Jayne Deely) his father has brought
home with him from Houston (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Certain similarities to Aeschylus's tragedy are obvious. Jaffy is the wandering father, returning home with a mysterious woman. Cassy is a Cassandra-like figure, able to foresee events that no one wants to believe. Reginald, like Orestes, is asked to help kill his father.

But by eliminating the sexual tension resulting from the lover's triangle of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, Dietz has left Clementine without much motive to kill her husband -- until Cassy reveals that Jaffy was responsible for the death of their daughter Iffy (Iphigenia) as the flood waters crept higher and higher.

In that critical moment, Jaffy asked his daughter to hand him his horn but, a moment later when he turned around, she had disappeared into the water raging inside their house. No amount of guilt can bring Iffy back to life and, as far as Clementine is concerned, a twitching white junkie is hardly an adequate substitute for her dead daughter.

Directed by Leah C. Gardiner with music by Justin Ellington, Clementine in the Lower 9 has a strong first act which leaves the audience wanting more. The play's second act, however, loses momentum despite a poignant scene in which Clementine explains why she can no longer go back to nursing.

Clementine (Laiona Michelle is reunited with her husband (Jack Koenig) in
Clementine in the Lower 9 (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

There's no doubt that the physical and emotional wreckage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has taken its toll on the characters in Dietz's play. Unfortunately, there were very few moments in which I was either gripped by the dramatic situation or particularly moved by Dietz's writing. Like its characters, Clementine in the Lower 9 is a play that has a bad case of the blues.

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