Wednesday, April 19, 2017

'Church and State' play aims to stir up conversation about guns




     The U.S. Senator from North Carolina is an unquestioning supporter of all things red, especially in relationship to God and guns.  His convictions are challenged, though, after a shooting at his sons’ elementary school leaves 29 dead. Following the funeral for one of the victims, he admits in response to a blogger’s question that the killings are enough to make him doubt God’s existence.

     He is running for a third term and his comments go viral.  Three days before the election.  

   Jason Odell Williams, 42, was inspired to write his latest play, Church and State, after the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, but he had been thinking about gun violence since at least 2007 with the mass killings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, a football rival of his alma mater, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

   “I watched the news and saw a candlelight vigil in Charlottesville and it struck a cord with me,” he said during a telephone interview from his home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  “I had been a student there not that long before.  It really shook me.”

  That incident had been followed by the shooting outside a Tucson supermarket in which Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 16 others were shot, six of them fatally.  

     “I thought, ‘What if it had been a man and he had been a Republican,” Williams said. “That’s a really dark and twisted thought, but when tragedy strikes, our thoughts become dark and twisted.”

     Sandy Hook’s tragedy prompted him to put his thoughts on paper. His first draft of Church and State was “like a well-written Facebook rant with a very one-sided liberal New Yorker view.”

    He sent it to Ralph Meranto, artistic director of JCC CenterStage in Rochester, NY, who had produced his first play, Handle With Care.  Meranto “asked smart questions” and offered suggestions to make the characters — the Senator; his wife, a conservative Christian; and his campaign manager, a liberal Jew from New York — more three dimensional and to present the issue of gun control more even-handedly.  He also thought it would be fun to have the Senator’s remarks be tweeted to spread quicker.  Meranto didn’t know his 2014 suggestion would be so timely in 2017 with the election of America’s Tweeter in Chief.

     The show had a successful run in Rochester before moving to Los Angeles where the Huffington Post called it “powerful, humorous and highly contemporary,” naming it one of the Top Ten L.A. Theatre Productions of 2016. It is now at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, with tickets on sale through July 2.

     Talkbacks have been a part of Church and State’s runs.  In New York they were held after three performances in April featuring representatives from Virginia Tech Victims Family Outreach Fund; Everytown For Gun Safety, with an appearance by actress Julianne Moore; and New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. During the Virginia Tech event, a woman identifying herself as a Donald Trump voter said she thought the play had done a good job of presenting both sides and later told Williams in the lobby that she hopes the play will be presented in red states.  That would be fine with him.

     “My goal was to get it to New York and then across the country.  I’d love to see it in all the purple states.  That’s my ultimate goal.”

     He is in talks with theatre producers in North Carolina, rural Virginia, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Alaska about possible productions there.

     “I want to stir up some controversy and start conversations.”

  He sees areas for compromises, such as universal background checks. He created an open-ended finish to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions.

     “We’re so divided now.  Maybe the rubber band will break and we’ll all come back to the middle.”

   Williams is adamant that he does not want his play to be thought of as disrespectful to people of faith or Southerners, and makes it clear he doesn't see conservative Christians as the enemy in gun control talks.  He saves his wrath for one target alone.

     “To me it’s the NRA.  They’re only thinking about profit.  Nothing about their agenda is reasonable.  Living without fear is more important than somebody’s gun collection.”

     Although he has had no personal experience with the issue, he thinks “we’re all less than six degrees of separation now from gun violence.”

     “There’s stuff in the newspapers everyday,” he said.

  Just then, Williams, in almost unbelievable timing, was interrupted by a text from Rob Nagle, the actor playing the Senator. The text informed him about a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school that had just left two adults and one child dead, with another child injured. 

     “It’s crazy.  It just keeps happening.  People are afraid to go to the mall, the movies, church, places that are supposed to be safe.” 

     Williams, who was nominated for an Emmy Award as a writer for National Geographic Channel’s TV series “Brain Games,” has never worked in politics and says the only thing that could lure him into it is that in the unlikely event Nagle would run for office, Williams would like to be his speechwriter. 

     He also is not a person of faith although his mother is Catholic and father Protestant and he was baptized but not confirmed.  And his first two Off-Broadway plays centered around God and faith.

     “I don’t know where I stand, which is why I keep writing about it,” he said, adding that his wife grew up Orthodox Jewish in Israel and turned from her religion when she moved to America.  After the birth of their daughter, Imogen, now 11, they began worshipping at a synagogue and sending her to Hebrew school.  He has no plans to convert.

     “It’s nice to have a sense of community, of coming together,” he said.  “I’m always examining what it is and what it means.” 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Come From Away




     On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 7,000 strangers were sidetracked to a tiny town on the coast of Newfoundland, nearly doubling the population in a matter of hours.  For the next five days the people of Gander fed, housed and befriended these refugees of the terrorist attacks in an inspiring example of hospitality.  Their stories are now being told in Come From Away, the new Broadway musical that has left audiences in tears and critics singing its praise. 

     “You couldn’t make it up.  No one would believe it,” said Irene Sankoff who, with her husband, David Hein, wrote the music, lyrics and book for the show, which takes its name from a Gander term for people who come from elsewhere.

   It was a normal day in Gander, a former refueling stop for international flights before aviation improvements made these pit stops unnecessary, but shortly after the devastation of the four hijacked jets was known, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended all air travel.  Gander residents who were going about their morning routines learned that 38 planes bearing 6,579 frightened and angry passengers  from around the world were coming to town. For how long, no one knew.  

     The couple emphasize this in not a Sept. 11 story — it’s a Sept. 12 story, of passengers from a multitude of countries, cultures, religions and languages who were welcomed by people living “on an island in between there and here.” The terrorist attacks aren’t even in the show.

     “It’s not necessary to further traumatize anyone,” Sankoff said, adding that even young people who weren’t born or conscious of the events at the time know what happened. “Everyone’s seen the images.  They don’t need to see it.  It’s part of our history.  It wouldn’t have helped the storytelling.”

     The lesser known stories are those of the townspeople who from the beginning began anticipating every need — pharmacies were ready to fill prescriptions, storeowners emptied their shelves to donate supplies, landlines were set up in that era before mass cell phone usage, sidelined air traffic controllers made vats of chili, striking school bus drivers transported passengers to schools, halls and all the shelters that were being readied as quickly as possible.  And the SPCA representative didn’t forget that animals were likely to be onboard some of the planes. She rescued and then cared for eight dogs, nine cats and two rare Bonobo chimpanzees, one of which was pregnant, while they were in quarantine in an airport hangar. 

     “We’ve been working on it for nearly seven years and it’s still amazing to me everyday,” Sankoff said. 

     Sankoff and Hein spoke about their journey to Broadway by phone from an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, their temporary residence.  Toronto is their home, although they haven’t seen a lot of it in recent years.  Their involvement with the Gander experience began in 2011 when Canadian producer Michael Rubinoff invited them out for a drink to discuss making a musical of the events that had happened a decade before.  Rubinoff had seen the couple’s only previous musical theatre production, My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. He had pursued several more experienced songwriting teams and been turned down.  

     As Canadians, Sankoff and Hein “knew through osmosis” of the Gander story.  They said yes to Rubinoff, began researching and found out a 10th anniversary commemoration of the experience was being planned for September. With the help of a grant from the Canadian government, they spent a month in the town interviewing  residents and the passengers who returned.  They relied on Skype to reach others internationally.

     The modest Gander folk thought this was all much ado about nothing. One said to the couple, “You’re going to make a musical about people making sandwiches?  Good luck with that.”

     But the residents had a different opinion this past October when the entire cast and crew of the Broadway-bound Come From Away flew into town to present two benefit concert versions of the show to raise money for local charities. The Gander Hockey Arena was transformed as many people experienced their first Broadway musical, one that just happened to be about them.

     “It was a life-changing experience for all of us,” Hein said.  “Almost all of Gander came to see the show.  We watched 5,000 people’s expressions as they watched themselves, feeling honored and celebrated.  Ten minutes before the Finale they all stood up and kept applauding through the last 10 minutes.  We were all sobbing.”

     Sankoff and Hein were grateful for that stamp of approval.  They had worked hard since their previous trip to Gander when they had done “tons and tons and tons of interviews” and heard so many stories that their first draft of the show was five hours long. From that they edited and refined, ferreting out stories that worked all the way through, as well as unique ones, and making composites of characters.  The show now runs about 100 minutes and features 12 actors playing multiple parts and singing more than a dozen original songs. 

     The heroism of the townspeople is portrayed, as is the fear and anxiety of the “plane people,” who hadn't heard about the terrorist attacks and had no idea why they were grounded to such a remote place.  Some had been onboard for 28 hours. Because of concern about bombs, authorities would not allow the passengers to claim their luggage.  All they could take were their carry-ons.  In a short time, they had all become refugees.

     Because these people were so traumatized, the library stayed open, offering a quiet place for people of all faiths to pray.  

    In one particularly moving scene, a bus filled with Africans pulls up to a Salvation Army camp. Seeing the people in uniforms, the passengers are filled with fear of soldiers and militia and, unable to understand English, they refuse to get off the bus. Then the driver, spotting a Bible in a woman’s hand, imagines a key to connect. He finds Philippians 4:6 and points to the words he can't read but doesn't need to — “Be anxious for nothing.  Be anxious for nothing.”  The people leave peacefully.

   “They used the Bible text written in a different language to communicate with each other,” Hein said. “That’s amazing.” 

     Another important element of the show is the music.  Hein had grown up listening to Newfoundland music, which has Celtic roots from Ireland and England. The eight members of the band play multiple instruments as a way of “layering on” the different musical traditions of the foreigners and townspeople.

     “We’re greater together than apart,” Hein said.  “The passengers came from all over the world and they changed Newfoundland and were changed themselves.”

     The music has audience members on their feet, clapping along at the end.

     “That happens every time,” Hein said, explaining with a laugh that he had planned the ending music as a way to transition people out of the theatre.  “No one leaves.  It’s the worst exit music ever.”

   The stories and music have had this effect wherever the show has run. Following sold-out, record-breaking, critically acclaimed engagements at La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. and Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, Come From Away landed on the “Best Theater of the Year” lists in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and papers around the country and in Canada.  

  Writing about the Gander stories has been a profound experience for Sankoff and Hein, who have turned over the keys to their Toronto home and car to 10 people, friends or friends of friends, over these last years while they traveled with the show’s development.  All they asked was that the people feed the two cats and give them love, and shovel the snow if necessary.

    “Our whole lives have been changed,” Hein said. “It makes us look at our lives and want to be better people, open to stories from around the world, and to be more open to reaching out to people.”

     Asked if this is an especially important time to tell a story about when many Americans were in the unfamiliar position of being refugees, Hein said it would be important any time.


     “We have our politics but the show bridges that.  It’s never a bad time to tell a story about human kindness.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Sally Field stars in latest Broadway revival of 'The Glass Menagerie'




     The new Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie should come with a prohibition: no one unfamiliar with this 1944 Tennessee Williams classic will be allowed in. Director Sam Gold’s unconventional staging should not be anyone’s first experience of this moving, lyrical story of a broken family and its desperate attempts to carry on.

   For someone like me who has loved the play since first reading it as a sophomore in high school, it was good to be at the Belasco Theatre to experience it again. This is the third Broadway production I’ve seen, as well as at least one other, at Baltimore’s CenterStage.  In all of those I never saw Amanda as fully realized as she is portrayed by Sally Field, who takes that aging Southern belle turned abandoned wife and nagging mother into vulnerable human being who I liked and cared about. 

     What I didn’t like, and which is why I don’t think this should be anyone’s introduction to the play, is the casting of a seriously disabled actress, Madison Ferris, who has muscular dystrophy, as Laura, the painfully shy daughter who was the center of the play for me when I first read it. Ferris’ physical disability is so pronounced it is distracting.  Her wheelchair had to be taken up and down stairs a couple of times either by Field or Joe Mantello, who plays her brother, Tom.  This takes time away from the story, as does Gold’s odd decision to have her placed on the kitchen table on her stomach at one point while Tom exercises her legs.

     I don’t understand why Laura would be so re-envisioned.  Her disability is emotional. She is paralyzed by her self-consciousness, not her legs. If she had been physically vulnerable as well it would be understandable why at that time, Depression-era American, she would want to keep to herself and live in her world of little glass figures, her menagerie. Her physical disability is that one leg is slightly shorter than the other, for which she wears a brace.  As Williams wrote, “This defect need not be more than suggested on the stage.” Laura, though, is overly embarrassed about it. “Laura’s separation increases until she is like a piece of her own glass collection, too exquisitely fragile to move from the shelf,” Williams wrote.

   Laura feels different from others at school, and yet they hardly notice her limp. But everyone would notice this Laura of the wheelchair. With all of this Laura’s difficulty in getting around it seems downright sadistic when Amanda sends her out for a stick of butter. As written, Laura’s fragility is far more psychological than physical. That is lost in this production, because of the added physical disability but also because Ferris portrays Laura as self-contained in a positive way.  She seems comfortable with herself and not overly emotionally weak. 

     Another character who feels altered is Jim (Finn Wittrock), the Gentleman Caller, who comes off like an idiot much of the time. I don’t remember that before.  That certainly wasn’t the case in the 2013 Broadway revival when he was portrayed likably by Brian J. Smith. 

    Something else I didn’t remember was this much demonstrated affection between the Wingfields, with Tom at one point pulling Amanda onto his lap as they sit around the kitchen table.  I liked that. 

     As for the staging, it took a bit of time for me to get used to the decision to have the play unfold on the full stage, bare except for a kitchen table on one side and a Victrola and records on the other, with the black brick wall of the theatre as backdrop. (Scenic design by Andrew Lieberman). Since the family is supposed to be living in strained financial conditions in a cramped St. Louis tenement, giving them vast space in which to roam around is strange. It’s like watching a rehearsal.

     The house lights also remain on well into the play, which I didn’t get since the set is supposed to be dimly lit. (Lighting design by Adam Silverman.)

     One element that I did love, and don’t want to give away too much of, is Amanda’s switch from disappointed middle-aged woman to shining Cotillion girl in the flash of an eye.  (Costumes by Wojciech Dziedzic.) Field’s face is radiant as she is transformed to her happy young self, or at least her imagined grandeur of the past. It’s a moment of color and joy in an otherwise sad play.

     But this is not a play about joy, and its sadness is made more pronounced in the way Gold has refigured the “blow out your candles, Laura” ending. The candles symbolize Laura’s soul and Williams has her blowing them out in the last scene. But in this version, Tom rather violently extinguishes them before he too abandons the family.  

     The final change is the last image, a switch from Amanda being seen comforting Laura to the haunting image of Laura sitting at the table with Amanda’s head in her lap, while she comforts her mother.  A bleak ending made even bleaker with both choices. 

     Williams called The Glass Menagerie a “memory play,” and framed it with Tom talking to the audience about the family’s circumstances.  Much of it is autobiographical as the playwright, like Tom, worked in a shoe factory and wrote when he could.  Williams also had a domineering mother and a fragile sister whom he loved.  Both families had moved from southern gentility to St. Louis to try to squeeze out a living. Williams’ father was a traveling salesman, Tom’s “a telephone man who feel in love with long distances.”

     So many good lines in this play, my favorite being “the long delayed but always expected something that we live for.”  I also love “the future becomes the present, the present the past, and the past turns into everlasting regret if you don’t plan for it!” and “Time is the longest distance between two places.”

   Menagerie was Williams’ first successful play, gaining immediate acclaim when it opened on Broadway in 1945.  Later classics include A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.   

Monday, April 3, 2017

Becoming Lewis



     A woman in her early 20s came up to Max McLean after a performance of his latest one-man play, C.S. Lewis On Stage: The Most Reluctant Convert, and said she couldn’t possibly be a Christian.  Sensing her anxiety, McLean told her, “God has you in his net and he’s not going to let you go.”  Her response surprised him.  “What should I do,” she asked.  He told her to read John’s gospel, gave her his card and they arranged a time to talk.

    Such is the intensity of the story McLean has written and is portraying at Off-Broadway’s Acorn Theatre through May 21.  “People have associations that get in the way and they can’t get past them.  Theatre and art have a way of breaking through stigmas,” he said, quoting Lewis’ notion of “stealing past the watchful dragons.”

     “His conversion is a roadmap for people who have given up.”

     Lewis has been important to McLean’s life since he too was in his early 20s.  He grew up Roman Catholic in a military family.  First Communion and Confirmation were meaningful to him, but in his teens he stopped going to church and “fell into atheism, more by anger than anything else.”  He experimented with Eastern religions in college, in keeping with the trend of the 1970s. Then he met the woman who would become his wife. A Christian, she took him to church and introduced him to other Christians, one of whom described Jesus as having been a historical person just like George Washington. This triggered in McLean a sense that Jesus was something more than the “fairy tale” character he had grown up imagining.  

     The first thing he did was read John’s gospel.  His second choice for Christian reading was Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, which he described as “over my head,” followed by Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, which he “got immediately.”

     McLean continues to respect the way Lewis opens his readers to the supernatural world, something he thinks the modern church, in its desire to simplify and demystify, is missing.

     “Lewis is my spiritual guide,” McLean said during a telephone interview in late February.  “He helps me understand reality in a way I wouldn’t see or understand. He believed so strongly in how the supernatural world interacts with ours.  He triggers my imagination in a way almost no other writer does.”

    Deciding to portray that spiritual guide onstage was a natural progression for the actor/writer.  He had adapted and performed The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce for the stage.  In doing so, he read extensively works by and about Lewis.  

     “In 2011 the idea came to me to attempt to tell his own story.”  He spent two or thee months working on a first draft, then put it away until a year and a half ago when he began working on it through “a hefty development process” that included labs and workshops before the show premiered in Washington, D.C. last April.  It then played Chicago and had a little midwestern tour before the current New York premiere. About 90 percent of the 80-minute script is Lewis’ words.

     “I’m not as smart as he was,” McLean says.  “My confidence comes from knowing what an extraordinary writer he was.”

     The play, which is performed without an intermission, takes place in Lewis’ Study in Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1950 and tells the story of Lewis’ life from the time of his mother’s death from cancer when he was 10, through his estranged relationship with his father, his World War I experience, his avowed atheism and his conversion.  

     “Conversion stories are inherently dramatic,” McLean says. “It’s something you fight against. The tension is almost like an invasion.  In Christian language, we’re all rebels. The Incarnation is a kind of invasion, taking back enemy territory.”

     He said the play’s title helps attract more than just Lewis fans because it’s intriguing. “A convert means to change and reluctant means to avoid.  That was the guiding principle to the piece.”  He said he needed to set up why Lewis was an atheist — his mother’s death, his relationship with his father and fighting and being wounded in the war.

     “That gave him an extremely pessimistic view of reality.  To turn from that was very challenging.”  McLean identified the fulcrum of the play as the tension between atheism and theism.  “Once I knew how I wanted to go, I knew what to take out and what to put in.”

     With the help of a three-piece suit, pipe and wig of thinning, combed-back hair, McLean transforms into Lewis and tells his story to the audience.  In preparation for the “forest of words to navigate,” he listened to three audio clips he found online.  In one, Lewis sounds “almost Alfred Hitchcockish.”  In the others he is more relaxed.  “He was Irish but he took on an Oxford Don pronunciation that was very erudite and educated.”

     In preparing for and portraying Lewis, McLean says the “Number One thing” he has learned was about Lewis’ “generosity of spirit.

     “He was a strange mixture of being incredibly self-reflective and not taking himself too seriously.  He had self-deprecating humor.  His basic nature was to be very proud and arrogant and he buried that.

     “I feel like I know him.  I feel like he’s my buddy.  With so many writers you get to the bottom of them quickly.  You don’t get to the bottom of Lewis.”

     McLean attributes this to deep insight.

     “He read everything from the Greeks to the moderns and he could remember everything.  He was a chronicler of literature who was able to see how the Christian view of the world best absorbed all the world views he read.”