My Talk to Hadassah (part 3)

Let’s move forward to TYPOLOGY #4 – THE DAMAGED SOUL, restored by Jewish Teaching. And, as it so happens, the following examples are written by non-Jewish authors who come to their respective portraitures with deep sensitivities.

Michelle Shupe in Joyce Carol Oates' THE TATTOOED GIRL

There’s usually a moment when a theater says “yes” to a play; The moment of saying “yes” to THE TATTOOED GIRL happened early in the reading of it; when Alma Busch, the disturbingly alluring life force at the center of Joyce Carol Oates adaptation of her own novel, begins to talk about where she comes from.

“Akron Valley, PA. Where white smoke rises like steam through cracks in the earth. “Fissures” the newspapers call ’em. Where the anthracite mines deep in the earth are burning. Since 1962! Wind Ridge, Bobtown, McCracken, Cheet were the names of the mines when they had names. Before the fires. Where do I live? — I live in Hell.”

The effortless authority of that writing and the conflict that gets set up between a dispossessed, emotionally bruised American and the target of her resentment in the person of a privileged, cosmopolitan Jew makes this an irresistibly pertinent conflict to have put on our stage. This refugee of Pennsylvania coal country is an alternately resilient, cunning, and radically unaware character on the brink of change.

And so Alma is white trash personified, branded with the equivalent of literal and emotional swastikas, spewing hate when she’s discovered, like refuse behind a dumpster, in an Ivy League college town by a professor in limbo, ailing and alienated, who becomes her unlikely nursemaid—and Henry Higgins—and, just as quickly, she becomes the nursemade to him.

The Jew in the case of Joshua Seigl is, like Alma, a resilient creature representing an immigrant class now honored and at home in America, but hardly at ease. Joshua is revered for a history of the Holocaust he has written. But he is uncertain whether there is efficacy in renewing that history and keeping it alive. It is Alma who questions the Holocaust’s veracity before being charged with ensuring its legacy. It is Alma who learns to respect the history that Joshua, in his illness, turns away from. And it is Alma who becomes an active signifier of the woman as healer. Having been tragically scarred herself.

Michael Russotto and Michelle Shupe in THE TATTOOED GIRL, directed by John Vreeke

Another Damaged Soul, tragically scarred, who devotes her journey to active healing, of herself and others, is the protagonist in Jeanette Buck’s memoir for the stage (with ample screentime for her associative dreams), THERE ARE NO STRANGERS.

Holly Twyford in ...NO STRANGERS directed by Delia Taylor

THERE ARE NO STRANGERS delves into one woman’s journey to heal both body and soul with the help of her community. What began as a simple tribute from Jeanette—a most beloved DC stage manager turned film-maker with a growing national reputation, who saw her burgeoning career derailed when she became the victim of a random act of terrible violence—this ostensible “thank you video” to the friends and family who helped her recover from the brutal attack in her Venice Beach home six years ago, developed into an emotionally charged one hour play charting her course of survival.

Multiple Helen Hayes Award-winning actress, Holly Twyford, portrayed Jeanette. The act of violence and the long, painful road to recovery is what prompted Buck to write THERE ARE NO STRANGERS. The real subject of this play, as it turned out, however, was not the terror of the violence she experienced, but the daily struggle to rebuild a life from the ground up upon surviving violence. THERE ARE NO STRANGERS speaks to Jeanette’s need to make sense of the senseless, as well as to the universal struggle to cope with a world torn apart by violence.

Although Buck has no clear recollections of the attack, her memories have been filled in over the years by the friends and family encircled around her. Brutally assaulted in the middle of the day, Buck was almost left for dead. After multiple surgeries and countless physical and emotional scars, Buck was left with two questions:

Why was she chosen as a victim? And why was she chosen to survive?

Many victims of violent crimes often find themselves at a loss for meaning in their lives, never able to overcome the feeling of shame, guilt and pain that comes from such an ordeal. Buck, however, attempted to see the assault and her attacker in a different light. In the process of healing, with the support of many loved ones, Buck focuses on praying for her attacker because, as she remarks, “this man is not evil incarnate. His life is so dark. Is there any way to pray the dark can be lifted? That’s my challenge.”

Holly Twyford told Buck’s story in as plaintively beautiful, straight-forward and uplifting a manner as you could ever imagine. It seems that every five years, Holly comes to Theater J to break our hearts and lift our spirits. Five years earlier, in 2000, she came to give birth to the heart-broken character of Alison in a memoir play I was writing called LIFE IN REFUSAL.

Here’s Holly as an American who finds her soul in Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, becoming a reluctant activist in the case of embattled Soviet astronomer and refusenik, Ben Charny.

Holly Twyford & Lawrence Redmond in LIFE IN REFUSAL, directed by Wendy C. Goldberg

Alison, an adventurous young political scientist travels to Russia in 1988 to document the dawning of glasnost and perestroika, reluctantly coming into contact with the real-life figure of Benjamin Charny, a rocket scientist whose repeated applications for an emigrant visa have been summarily denied by Soviet authorities. An elegant, humble and wise member of the Jewish “refusenik” community in Moscow, Charny is dying of cancer, treatment for which is complicated by an acute heart condition, as Soviet doctors refuse to operate on him. Alison, a Jew in denial of her own identity, is slowly drawn into Ben’s life, his family, and eventually, sheds her resistance to become a forceful advocate for Ben’s case. Set some ten years after the fall of the Soviet Empire, the play allows Alison to reflexively move back and forth as she meets up with Charny in the United States and more poignantly, from beyond the grave.

Alison and Ben develop a moving relationship over time and space. It’s a bit of father-daughter; it’s a bit of pupil-teacher; and it’s a bit of caring friends who venture to become even closer. And then it’s gone, in death, in distance, as the movement ends and Alison is left bereft and bewildered. The play asks about the meaning of such relationships; of such moments in history when people fuse together to undo an injustice. What happens after the cause no longer takes hold of the conscience as it once did? Whither the bond with the Jewish refusenik when he or she is no longer refused?

“All relationships have a shelf-life” wrote one reductive critic in response to this play, which others found to be moving. But thinking more about that dismissal, it occurred to me that the relationship whose usefulness has expired doesn’t necessarily get tossed with the garbage like month-old yogurt; it occupies space in the soul and the conscience, as memory retrieves moments of shared love and anguish and worry. And then the context changes. The bond slackens. But the resonance is transformed. The changing resonance is what infiltrates Alison’s soul and leads her back to reclaim a piece of her heritage; a song from the old country; an identification formerly eschewed. Weeks and months and now even years after Ben Charny’s death, this memory sends the character back to a soulful place, where connection is made to a past, to a way of feeling, to a way behaving, which hopefully makes us all a bit more soulful in our present, awakening state.

Obviously, Twyford’s Alison isn’t a damaged soul, per se, though she does become inspired (like Jeanette’s alter-ego, and like Alma Busch as well) by some sage Jewish teacher. And so “The Damaged Soul as Pupil” still seems to apply.

Let’s now look at the Pupil as Teacher; the Truth-Seeker-Philosopher who starts out impressionable and grows to become a formidable moral arbiter. We’re talking, of course, about Hannah Arendt and the dynamic portrait of her rendered in Kate Fodor’s HANNAH AND MARTIN.

Elizabeth Rich & John Lescault in HANNAH AND MARTIN, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen

Elizabeth Rich’s Hannah – her thoroughly persuasive, hugely vital moral adjudicator and emotional wrestler, is presented to us first as an impressionable student of philosophy, smitten by the brilliant teachings and towering intellect of her professor, Martin Heidigger. History will split them apart and Heidigger will become rector at Freiberg University, an active member of the Nazi party, and a vocal proponent of the Fuhrer. And after the war, he will come before an academic tribunal. Whither the rest of his academic career? Arendt must decide whether she will testify against his re-instatement, or on his behalf.

Arendt articulates questions most profound for our day and age: Should we forgive the moral lapses of a loved one? What does justice demand of our closest and most respected leaders?

Often these days, we find ourselves, living close to people who, for one reason or another, do unspeakable, unforgivable things. Or maybe just stupid things. Or things that they are forced to do in the course of following orders or doing business that may cause irreparable harm. And sometimes these offenders are great men; or women; much beloved; who have a tremendous amount still to offer to the world. What to do with them?

After tackling the Kabbalistic meditations of THE MAD DANCERS, what was new for us in HANNAH AND MARTIN was the more rigorous world of philosophy, and of philosophers in love. Our playwright—the daughter of academic philosophers, herself—was able to strike just the right balance between abstraction and concrete detail to make this fierce relationship play of ideas come to life,

Incidentally, we will explore the charcter of Hannah Arendt again in THE BANALITY OF LOVE which we’ll present May 10, 2010 in a reading at the Embassy of Israel, where we’ll get to know Hannah Arendt from an Israeli perspective, in the distinguished author/playwright Savyon Liebrecht’s new take on Hannah and her relationship with Heidigger.

Now we go back a bit to look again at Prototype #1, The Jewess in Relationship to Her Family.

Bill Hamlin & family members in Jennifer Maisel's THE LAST SEDER

It’s always a treat and a challenge to present a family play; what’s more readily identifiable than a Jewish family’s foibles? And because it’s so frequently depicted, how much harder a task for our playwrights to render that family with anything approaching originality? But that’s what Jennifer Maisel did in bringing a fresh, frenetic and uncensored voice to render the Price family with stylish sensitivity in her Kennedy Center award winning THE LAST SEDER. A family of four daughters are summoned home for a final Passover with dad before he’s sent to a nursing home as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s Disease.

But in the stunning second act seder meal, where the Prophet Elijah seems to enter and bless the house with a miracle, time is magically reversed. For a glorious extended interlude, Marvin Price, the family patriarch battling a crippling disease, is wholly restored and transforms the lives of everyone. He retains all his faculties, presides over the seder every inch the master of the house, dances with each daughter, and his wife, gives them sage council, and then, just as the Chad Gadgya is sung and Elijah departs out the front door, Marvin reverts to his addled form.

Michelle Shupe and Tricia McAuley in THE LAST SEDER, directed by Joseph Megel

It’s one of the most moving interludes to ever have played on our stage.

More to come…