The other day I was reading a story about the speculation regarding Graydon Carter’s replacement as Editor in Chief at Vanity Fair and thought to myself – in a rather sexist way, come to think of it, combined with a disquieting bit of internalized homophobia, since the candidates mentioned were women and gay men (this new Editor will probably be known during the life of this story) – that none of those mentioned would hire a writer such as Sebastian Junger as Graydon had done. You know, the kind of writer who swigs from life and swaggers into battle zones. That night, I attended the Magic Theatre’s opening of The Eva Trilogy by BARBARA HAMMOND and directed by the Magic’s Artistic Director, LORETTA GRECO, which is scheduled to run through November 12th. There, in the lobby – his swagger stilled but swigging from a bottle of water – was Sebastian Junger. It was one of those heightened coincidences in which I try to find the lessons.
I discovered that Junger was there to support Hammond, a writer he admires and the woman he loves. Afterward, I went up to him to tell him what I’d been thinking earlier in the day. We laughed about it – well, he laughed it off actually. And then I said, “But this is not about you or me tonight. This is about her,” and I pointed to Hammond who was deep in a post-performance discussion with her director Greco. It was more even than about Hammond specifically as I later contemplated the stirring, graceful, poetic production that she and Greco had conjured of her deeply moving play about a daughter who helps her seriously ill mother toward the death for which the mother seems to long – or is it the daughter’s longing for life that leads her to such an act? What I had experienced that night wasn’t just a great production of a troublingly beautiful play, which was full of language that soared and images that haunted, but also a different way to swig from life, a different way to swagger.
At this critical juncture in our country’s history – when we are rightly punishing sexual predators of women and gay men with the fierceness of our societal opprobrium as a way of making a cultural amends for having rewarded a sexual predator and braggart with the office of the presidency – it is also a way of making such an amends to turn rightly to the women theatre artists of all ages and ethnicities in our culture to light the way we seem to have so disappointingly, despondently lost when Clinton herself lost the presidency to the predator. Our female artists are the cultural warriors we need right now.
Sam Shepard, in my Digital Dialogue with him in Part Two of the archival podcast posted elsewhere this month at sessumsMagazine.com, presciently talked about this with me back in 1988 when he discussed pursuing his female side as an artist. “Well, you’re conscious of it to the degree you’re able to pursue it,” he said when prompted by me about it. “Look it, you start out as an artist – I started out when I was 19 – and you’re full of defenses. You have all of this stuff to prove. You have all of these shields in front of you. And your weapons are out. It’s like you’re going into battle. You can accomplish a certain amount that way. But then you get to a point where you say, ‘But there’s this whole other territory that I’m leaving out.’ And that territory becomes more important as you grow older. You begin to see that you leave out so much when you go to battle with the shield and all the rest of it. You have to start including that other side or die a horrible death as an artist with the shield stuck on the front of your face forever. You can’t grow that way. And I don’t think you can grow as a person that way either. There just comes a point when you have to relinquish some of that and risk becoming more open to the vulnerable side, which I think is the feminine side. It’s much more courageous than the male side.”
Here are more of these Artistic Warrior Women I experienced this past month:
MERCEDES RUEHL is certainly warrior-like in her portrayal of Arnold’s mother in the stirring third act of Harvey Fierstein’s abridged version of his his own trilogy of plays from the 1980s. He’s even truncated the title to Torch Song, trimming the Trilogy from it. Thank God(dess), he hasn’t trimmed Ruehl’s role. Director Moises Kaufman has cunningly crafted it to fit the kind of actress he just as cunningly cast in the part that once was played by Estelle Getty, who gained massive fame as Sofia on Golden Girls. Where Getty had a squat, squinty fortitude, Ruehl rules the stage with a statuesque grandeur, but it is the kind of grandeur that makes you think she’s barely keeping it in her arthritic grip. She’s not a shrew, but shrewd. A termagant, but with a terrific coif. By turns, she is terrifying and touching. There is a surprising, surly grace to the performance in a production touched by grace itself. Its run has been extended to December 9th.
If I had to choose a director whose worked has moved me the most in my recent trips to New York it would be REBECCA TAICHMAN, who won last year’s Tony for Best Director for her work staging Paula Vogel’s Indecent and has now brought such a fresh and keen eye to J.B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways for the Roundabout Theatre Company. The production is scheduled to run through November 27th. Once again, motherhood is at the center of a play and Elizabeth McGovern is giving more than a star turn in the maternal role. She imbues it – rather daringly – with a dislikable, greedy longing for another kind of grandeur, a classist kind lacking all class, that keeps escaping her grasping grip much as it has England’s itself, the country where it is set in the early 20th Century. And yet Priestley and Taichman, in her deeply moving interpretation of his play, have much more on their melded minds.
Priestley based his play on his reading of J. W. Dunne’s book An Experiment with Time in which Dunne posits that all temporal concepts are happening simultaneously. The Past, The Present, The Future are all one and linear time is only the way in which human consciousness is able to perceive this. Priestley uses this idea to show how human beings experience loss, failure and the death of their dreams but also how, if they could experience reality in its truest form, they might find a way out. Gabriel Ebert portrays the son of McGovern’s character in the Roundabout production. At the end of the combined first and second acts, which Taichman has blended with an ending to them that summons all of Priestley’s conceits in a concise and magical way, the always brilliant Ebert, as his character, tenderly and heartbreakingly explains some of Dunne’s arguments by way of Priestley’s dramatic flair to his sister Kay, so beautifully portrayed by Charlotte Parry. He then quietly recites this William Blake poem:
“Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.”
It is a transcendent moment. And yet it took a director with the knowledge of her own talent and the tenacity to summon it in service to such a text, that results in just such transcendence. It takes a kind of artistic toughness – a belief, indeed, that theatre can be transcendent – to get to such a gentle grace note.
I am grateful for Taichman’s talents, which are currently on display at MCC Theatre in New York where she has directed JOCELYN BIOH’s School Girls: or, The African Mean Girls Play, scheduled to run until December 10th. In fact, all the directors of the plays in the rest of MCC’s current season are women: LIESL TOMMY (whose work on Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed will always be one of my most memorable cultural experiences), JACKSON GAY, and LEIGH SILVERMAN.
There is even more grace to be found in the Ars Nova tour of playwright BESS WOHL’s Small Mouth Sounds, directed by RACHEL CHAVKIN, which I caught during its stand at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater in San Francisco, where it runs until December 10th. It moves to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica from January 11 – 18, then on to Dallas, Miami, and Philadelphia. It is filled – exquisitely – with wit and wisdom and emotion and silence and stillness, all combining to move the heart and stir the soul. Do not miss this if you are close by one of its tour stops. “I love mess, mistakes, the fragility of live performance,” Chavkin told The New York Times, also claiming that she’d love to do an “edgy, sexy, environmental production of Little Shop of Horrors … I try to build productions that feel on the edge of spiraling into chaos at any moment, though in fact my work is profoundly controlled.”
Finally, one of the reasons Bruce Springsteen’s one-man Broadway show is such an emotionally nuanced one is because, within it, there is his emotionally nuanced tribute to his own mother – or as I refer to her in the modern musical lexicon: The Other Adele. “She goes to work, she does not miss a day, she is never sick, she is never down, she never complains,” Springsteen says in his show, quoting from his memoir, Born to Run. “Work does not appear to be a burden for her but a source of energy and pleasure.”
Springsteen then took one of this many guitars handed to him throughout the evening and started to play “The Wish,” an outtake that never made it onto one of his studio albums, but was instead included on Tracks, a box set of outtakes that he released in 1998. It is a tribute to his mother – her indomitable work ethic, her enduring a hard marriage and a harder kind of loneliness within it, her patience, her nurturing of his own burgeoning artistry, her love, ever her love. It includes this verse:
If pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true
You couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawlin’ through …
Some women stop us from crawling to that world. Others – the artists – take our hands and tell us to stand. They lead us there.