28 May 2011
A couple weeks ago, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre presented their Ground Floor New Play Series. I had the pleasure of seeing 3 of the 4 readings in the series, work from Boston University’s MFA candidates. Unfortunately, I missed out on Reginald Edmund’s South Bridge on the second night, but the three readings I did see left me anticipating the day when I could see them fully staged and earning tons of acclaim.
Here’s more on these promising new playwrights and their latest work:
On Sunday May 1st, Heather Houston kicked off the series with her exploration of life, death, science and friendship called Supergravity and the Eleventh Dimension. The one act play from the series’ youngest writer is extremely moving. The five person cast captured the story well, especially Christopher and Jessica Webb as Fred and Leslie respectively. Her character quickly proves Houston’s most fascinating as she struggles with the blame being thrust upon her for her best friend/sometimes rival’s death. Houston’s subject matter is very dark but she somehow elevates it, maintaining the gravitas but allowing the story room to breathe and create the moments of lightness that give the tragedy more effect.
The final night of the series, May 4th, featured Absence by Peter M Floyd. At first I wasn’t too sure about this one. It featured a 9 person cast with a couple of them doubling their roles. I wasn’t sure it would fare well at a reading without blocking or costumes. And at first I was right. The beginning couple minutes dragged a bit as a conventional family drama played out. But then Anne Gottlieb’s character Barb’s speech stopped making sense for a moment, and Floyd got my attention. As the play continues, these bursts of incomprehensibility become longer, more frequent, more horrifying for someone trying to understand what the characters are saying. Absence, you see, is the story of a difficult old woman’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease and the difficulties her family (most importantly her daughter Barb) face in trying to help her understand them. Alice Duffy did a phenomenal job bringing the wonderfully complex central character Helen to life while Gottlieb and David Gullette were heartbreaking as her daughter and husband. Lewis Wheeler’s role a Dr. Bright was a controversial one at the Q&A session after the reading. Some people thought the symbolic character in Helen’s mind was unnecessary or confusing but I think he brings a wonderful ambiguity to Helen’s disease. Without him, all we’d see is Helen and her family’s tragedy, but with him we see that, in some strange way, the disease is a release for Helen, a return to the essential her. That conflict makes the piece all the more interesting. But easily the play’s best feature is its point of view. The audience sees and hears the scenes as Helen does, with less and less sense-making as the play moves towards its conclusion. Every time Barb’s real words are replaced with gibberish we understand Helen’s torment at the expectation that she was supposed to understand it. The play’s most poignant scene comes after Helen asks Dr. Bright for one moment of real communication with her daughter. Barb, visiting her mother in the hospital, delivers a long and painfully honest speech in which she says everything she hasn’t been saying for years. But what she’s actually saying is nothing- a beautifully constructed and ultimately meaningless list of words. If played correctly, every single thing Barb was trying to say to her mother comes across anyway, as though they’ve communicated across language lines. At the end of the reading, Floyd thanked the actors whole heartedly, admitting “this is not an easy play to read”. So much is dependent on saying things you’re not saying that without the excellent cast, the genius of Absence wouldn’t have been clear. It’s a text that’s too good for anyone not up to the task- as, quite frankly, most of the truly great ones are. With Absence, Peter M Floyd breaks more basic playwrighting rules than I can count. And in doing so, captures all the heartbreak and confusion of a disease that is somehow both incomprehensible and something so many of us have seen.
My favourite play in the series was a similar exploration of decline. The third night of the series, May 3rd, featured John Greiner-Ferris’ Highland Centre, Indiana. The informal reading of Greiner-Ferris’ 5 person play was one of the most moving nights I’ve spent at the theatre in a long time. The incomparably Will Lyman captured the crux character perfectly. Henry, an old farmer dying from bone cancer under the care of his nephew Hank, is one of those characters who’s wonderful and horrible and everything in between all at once. He’s curmudgeon and stubborn beyond belief, he’s a backwards thinker in more ways than one, unforgivably proud, judgmental, untrusting and harsh. But he’s also supremely human. Of all the characters I saw over the 3 nights of the Playwrights Series, Henry was the one I most recognized as real. From his fondness for disgusting jello salad to his insistence on homemade cures for hypothetical kidney stones, Henry is as detailed and thorough a character creation as any I’ve ever seen. And the company he keeps is not far behind. Hank (the always-great Daniel Berger-Jones), Henry’s conflicted nephew, is easily the strongest protagonist in the series. One of those upsettingly rare creatures who is more than a sum of his adjectives, Hank as much contradicts the labels pushed onto him as he does embody them (labels like “young gay man” or “country boy”), making for a truly empathetic, engrossing and wonderfully complex character (in my favourite “that’s how it actually works” way). Steven Gagiastro gave wonderful life to Billy, the play’s complicated comic relief and Sarah Newhouse was heartbreaking as Alice Ann, the late mother/sister at the heart of Hank/Henry’s consciousness. Greiner-Ferris sets up the potential for a lot of darkness early on in the play. His subject matter threatens to cross into the stuff of soap opera. But he grounds the story in his richly-developed characters, who deal with their turbulent lives with remarkable honesty. Highland Center, Indiana speaks to the greatest strengths of the human spirit and the worst failings of human beings, a story more honest than any I’ve seen.
The Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s Ground Floor New Play Series was brilliant to witness. The series featured reading performances by some of Boston’s best talents like Will Lyman, Daniel Berger-Jones and Anne Gottlieb. It was staged by up and coming directors like Emily Ranii (Supergravity and the Eleventh Dimension) Megan Gleeson (Absence) and Krista D’Agostino (Highland Center, Indiana). But at the centre of the experience was the beautiful writing of the featured playwrights. Heather Houston, Peter M Floyd and John Greiner-Ferris are truly names to watch out for.