Saturday, December 22, 2007

Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais

Jean Langlais lost his sight at 3, was a devote Catholic and experienced the trauma of occupation in Paris during World War II. These elements had a profound influence on shaping him into one of the foremost composers of sacred music in the 20th century. Now the choral group Gloriae Dei Cantores has honored the centennial of his birth with a newly released two-disk CD, “Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais.”

“There’s a high level of truth in his music,” said James Jordan, an assistant director of the choir and one of the organists on the recording. “What Langlais was about, we try to go after music like that.”

The choir sings three of Langlais’ masses spanning 32 years: the well-known “Messe Solennelle” of 1949, evoking the terrors of occupation and yearning for peace; “Messe en style ancien” from 1952, demonstrating his love for Gregorian chant; and “Grant Us Thy Peace,” set in English and commissioned from the famous Three Choirs Festival in Worcester, England in 1981.

“The voice of someone like Langlais is something we feel very strongly about keeping alive,” Dr. Jordan said. “His grasp of the elements of church is so important. It was a big statement of faith on his part. He was a strong Catholic and devoted to the Blessed Mother.”

He also was devoted to Gregorian chant and improvisation. His music reflects this, as well as the events in his life. He chose to stay in Paris during the war and because of his blindness, his musical gift “was keened up even more.” Dr. Jordan says this is heard in “Messe Solennelle” -- “the noise, the marching, the breaking of glass, then the silence when it was there. It’s a musical response to the world. You can hear the tension, the clashes in harmonies, the chords, the absolute outcry. Because he could not see, the music became a reflection of what he heard. It was what he saw while he couldn’t see, what he was able to express because he had to get it out through sound.”

The choir chose the title “Eclipse” as a way to capture this emotional range.

“He had an aural sense of great contrast, lightness and darkness,” Dr. Jordan said. “What he tried to capture in his music is light and dark. It demands that you grapple with him and what he’s saying.”

The organ works of Langlais, who continued to compose until his death in 1991, constitute the largest body of music for that instrument other than the works of J.S. Bach. Dr. Jordan says it’s important on two levels. “It speaks to people’s spirits as they listen, but it also teaches. He believed music had a role to teach in the church. This isn’t a CD for highfaluting people with music education backgrounds, but a musical statement to everybody that liturgy and worship must be in all ways beautiful and truthful. Langlais was heartbroken by what he called the revolution in Catholic music in the 50s. He felt so strongly about the gems the Catholic church had.”

This recording, featuring 40 choir members, three organists, two directors and several brass players, has been well received. Steven Ritter, writing for “Audiophile Audition,” said: "These two CDs are about as good an introduction to [Langlais’] art as I know of, and the fabulous Gloriæ Dei Cantores sing with the enthusiasm and devotion that their fans have come to expect. . . . Great singing and one of the few ways to come to know this man’s work. The sound, taken down at the Church of the Transfiguration in Orleans, Massachusetts, is first rate." 

Maybe even more significant is the response of Langlais’ widow,  Marie Louise Langlais: "I have been amazed by the very high level of the performances, the choir, the brilliant brass, and the organists,” she wrote in an e-mail to Paraclete Press, which released the CD this fall. “The accompaniment, for example, of the ‘Messe Solennelle’ is absolutely magnificent, as are the very good tempi: not too slow, not too fast, the perfect tempi in a beautiful acoustic. And the Grand Orgue interventions are striking. I should say, one of the very best performances of this mass I ever heard. In my opinion, Gloriæ Dei Cantores are a top choir, certainly one of the best in the USA, and Elizabeth Patterson’s direction of my husband’s music is absolutely wonderful. She understood everything, in the big vocal works as in the more intimate motets."

Langlais’ music is well known in this country because he performed here often, prompting many Americans to go to France to study with him. They are his greatest legacy, Dr. Jordan says.

“All his students passing along everything he believed, passing on a spiritual life he was so dedicated to that is in his music. He was such an incredible man.”

Related web sites:

Gloriae Dei Cantores
Paraclete Press

Sunday, December 16, 2007


I haven’t seen so many people leaving a performance at intermission since “Drowning Crow,” which had created a near stampede. The crowd exiting the Beaumont on Friday night wasn’t exactly a stampede, but my friend Mary Sheeran and I had plenty of company as we passed up sitting through an hour and 45 minutes more of “Cymbeline.”

As Mary said: “I’ve seen this show before.” She didn’t mean that literally, it’s just that this late play of Shakespeare’s, one of his four romances, repeats so many themes from his earlier plays that it seems familiar. It’s got lovers and a drug that mimics death -- “Romeo and Juliet” and “Antony and Cleopatra” -- a conniver who plants the seed of jealousy -- “Othello” -- and a willful father and an independent daughter -- “King Lear” -- to name a few of the been-there-done-that plots in “Cymbeline.” Of course, being a dramatic romance and not a tragedy, the outcome is different, but maybe that’s the trouble. I like the drama of those earlier plays. I’ve never cared for the romances.

It would seem others feel the same way, judging by the audience, or lack thereof. Plenty of seats were empty in the orchestra and I saw no one at all in the balcony. When you consider Lincoln Center is subscriber-based, meaning guaranteed bodies in seats, and that it was a press night, meaning all of us and our guests who wouldn’t otherwise be there, it doesn’t appear that many people chose to see “Cymbeline.” This in spite of a cast with always dependable theatre pros like Phylicia Rashad, John Cullum, Michael Cerveris and Martha Plimpton.

Unlike Mary, I had seen “Cymbeline” before, many years ago at the Delacorte. The only things I remember about it were Liev Schreiber and the mystical set, which included pools of water and lots of candles. It was no challenge to sit through it then, although not for reasons of the play. It’s just always so pleasant to be outdoors on a warm summer night, with a few stars and the moon overhead, plus a picnic first with a couple glasses of wine to mellow the mood. Those elements were missing at the Beaumont.

Too bad. The cast deserved a bigger audience, or maybe just a different play.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Is He Dead?

I don’t usually like silly shows, but this one is so over-the-top goofy that I got caught up in it and was laughing out loud throughout. In this newly discovered farce by Mark Twain, the art world is mocked with acerbic wit and social commentary, as well as a great deal of low comedy.  The fabulous Norbert Leo Butz stars as Jean-Francois Millet, who would go on to be known as one of France’s greatest painters -- think “The Angelus” and “The Gleaners.” Twain portrays him as a struggling artist who stages his own death to drive up the price of his paintings.  As the zany scheme unfolds, the play poses questions about fame, greed and the value of art, and pokes Twain’s mischievous fun at everyone involved.

At first Millet balks at the idea of being locked away while his paintings fetch high prices from collectors who, upon hearing of his illness and impending death, suddenly value the same work they had passed on earlier in his studio. But then his gang of cohorts cook up a ploy that will allow him to intermingle and enjoy the fun -- they remake him as Daisy, an identical twin. Imagine Shakespeare’s cross-dressing identity switches and add in a little Marx Brothers and you get the idea. Craziness and sheer fun.
Butz (in photo with Jenn Gambatese) is a riot, just as he was in his Tony-winning role as the sleazy con-man Freddy in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” He is energy personified, yet even though he is the star character, he doesn’t come across as the star of the show, and I mean that as a credit to him and to the whole cast. It felt more like an ensemble piece -- there wasn’t a weak performance anywhere. Bryon Jennings is delicious as a melodramatic villain and Millet’s fellow schemers all bring their stereotypical characters to life.

“Is He Dead?”, which had never been performed or published, was tucked away in a university collection of Twain’s papers. The version on stage at the Lyceum Theatre was adapted by playwright David Ives and directed by two-time Tony Award winner Michael Blakemore.

It’s nice to know Mark Twain’s work is alive and well, and living on Broadway.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Love’s Pure Light

Karen Burgman’s new CD of piano improvisations, "Love’s Pure Light," is exquisite, reverential and prayerful. It’s also joyous, especially in her interpretation of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” Most of the 17 selections are Christmas classics, brought to new life through Karen’s playing. Three of the songs, “Mary, Did You Know?”, “One Small Child” and “Emmanuel” were new to me.

I knew the first time I heard her first CD, “The Impulse of His Love,” that she was playing from her soul. Then I was fortunate to meet her this fall through her work on the new musical “Amazing Grace: The True Story.” She’s just as much a blessing in person, with an incredible story of faith and persistence behind her recordings. When her hands were crippled by tendinitis she was told she would never be able to play the piano again. But with her openness to God’s grace, she found a way to again praise Him with her music. Her playing couldn’t be more beautiful! Check out my interview with her in the Sept. 5 posting.

Karen's career as a pianist has taken her all over the world.  Her sensitivity as a musician has won her numerous awards in accompanying and chamber music, and she has played in venues including Carnegie Hall and Jordan Hall, MA, where she performed a work commissioned in her honor.  She has been recognized for her innovative work in the area of music therapy to autistic children, and as an arranger/composer she continues to explore new projects. She graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory in 2005 with a Bachelor of Music Degree in piano performance and now maintains a private teaching studio, serves as artistic director and conductor of the Sola Gratia Musicians Choirs, and manages the Cantabile Concert Series at Hilltown Baptist Church.  She and her, husband, Michael, live in North Wales, PA.

To order this beautiful CD, visit To book Karen, visit and for publishing information, visit

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Colonial Nutcracker

The Dance Theatre in Westchester does an impressive job of presenting its “The Colonial Nutcracker” given the strain it’s under, traveling from place to place for a performance here, a performance there. I caught yesterday’s one-appearance only at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts and enjoyed its interpretation of Tchaikovsky's ballet, even though, with its recorded narrator relating the tale in a storybook-telling voice, it’s much more suited to children and families than an adult dance-lover.

All of the performers were good; Tomiko Magario as the Snow Queen and Amanda Theunissen as the Sugar Plum Fairy were standouts. The company makes good use of painted backdrops and a few props. The music, of course, was canned, but that’s all right. The hall was PACKED with children who remained quiet and, for the most part, still throughout the nearly 90-minute performance. Tickets were only $12, about the cost of a movie, so parents were able to introduce their children to the performing arts at an early age, which is certainly a good thing. The afternoon was underwritten by Target, which is opening up nearby in March. (Yea! I love that store and wish we had one here in Manhattan.) Carolers sang in the theatre’s lobby beforehand, which was a lovely touch.

For information about upcoming performances, including ballet, visit or call (718) 951-4500.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Taking the long view

It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.

Nothing we do is complete,
Which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
And there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
An opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
Between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
Ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.


-- Archbishop Oscar Romero

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Farnsworth Invention

It’s a tribute to Aaron Sorkin’s talent that he could write a play filled with lots of talk of science and technology about a subject I am not the least bit interested in -- television -- and have me completely involved. He does this by telling the stories of two brilliant, driven men and the conflict that divides them.

Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson, in photo), a boy genius from Idaho, invented television as a high school student in 1927. David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) was a Russian immigrant who fled the Cossacks as a child and ended up as the head of RCA and founder of NBC. The legal fight between Farnsworth and RCA became known as one of the great, tragic examples of legal and industrial force combining to crush a rightful patent owner. The play, under the direction of Des McAnuff, is a fast-paced presentation of a race to produce an invention that would change the world forever, as these two men battle one another to be first.

Azaria and Simpson are excellent, as are all the cast members. Sarnoff and Farnsworth narrate parts of each other’s stories before they are enacted, which adds to the sense of competition. In these parallel lives we see young Farnsworth present his high school science teacher with the whole year’s worth of homework on the first day of school. He only wants to work on his invention, television, a name he coined using the Greek “tele,”meaning from a distance, with vision. He knows he can make it happen; he just needs time and financial support. 

Sarnoff’s story is more dramatic, including his escape from a shtetl and resettlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he obliterates his accent by the time he’s 14. Through smarts and chutzpah, he works his way up through the communications world, starting as a clerk in a telegraph office where he is the only one to present the names of the Titanic’s survivors after muscling all the other companies out of the way. It’s natural for him to head from there into radio, where it’s interesting to see how passionately he opposes using the airwaves to promote products; he wants music and news. “It’s gonna change everything,” he says. “It’s gonna end ignorance and misunderstanding.” That gets a laugh. If only he had been able to achieve that goal we wouldn’t have to suffer through all those commercials now to listen to our news and music!

My sympathy, and I’m sure most people’s, went to Farnsworth as we see him get screwed out of his patent by Sarnoff. But then, “Farnsworth” is too good a play to be that black and white or sentimental. As my friend Trixy Treat e-mailed me this morning: “I woke up thinking about the play and still am, so that is a good sign of how much I enjoyed it.  What I woke up chewing over was the thought that the forces that go into successful invention and possibly creation are not always good ones.  As the story is laid out, it is unlikely that television would have arrived when it did if it had not been for the addition of Sarnoff's total drive for power and success.  I shall be wrestling with this one all through the day!”

How many plays can you say that about? All too many are forgettable even before the next morning. I never saw Sorkin’s other play, “A Few Good Men,” but I saw the movie and found it a lot more involving that I thought I would considering it’s a show about a military court trial. I’ve never seen his television shows, but I know many people loved “The West Wing.” Television for me exists only so I can do my Pilates, yoga, power body sculpting, dance and cardio workouts now that I’ve dropped my gym membership. I couldn’t watch it even if I wanted to because I don’t have cable and where I live in Manhattan you can’t get reception of even the main networks without cable. That’s why I said it would be unusual for me to be interested in a play about television. But I was -- from start to finish.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

That Girl

I’ve watched the first three seasons of “That Girl” on DVD and am looking forward to the release of the final two. I LOVED that show as a child. I was about 10 or 11 when it came on and watching it was like being struck by lightening. I thought, “That’s what I want!” I don’t know if I had ever even heard of New York much less visited, but it looked so glamorous and romantic and exciting I intuitively know I needed to be there. When I shared this at a dinner party recently one of the male guests said he had had the same reaction growing up in Kentucky.

During the second season my mother brought me up for a visit and I felt at home for the first time in my life. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is where I’m supposed to be.” I had always felt like a fish out of water in Baltimore, but didn’t know there was any other way to feel. (You know the saying, a fish doesn’t know it’s in water. Well, it was a similar idea.) From that first visit I knew I had to live in New York, and from then on I felt I was just biding my time in Baltimore.

I didn’t know then that “That Girl” was a groundbreaking show, that never before had a single woman been shown living on her own and pursuing a career. Women had always been someone’s wife, or mother, or daughter, never their own person. Years before “That Girl” came on, when my friends talked about how much they loved “Lucy,” I didn’t, budding little feminist that I was. I used to say, “It’s a battle of the sexes and Lucy always loses.” I didn’t know the word sexism then, but I recognized it.

Marlo Thomas was my ideal. When I found out she was appearing at a theatre in downtown Baltimore, my friend Terry Hagan and I took the bus down to look for her. We must have been about 12 or 13. I didn’t know how theatre worked then; I thought because her play was running that she would always be at the theatre, so Terry and I went there to meet her. We tried the doors but they were locked because, of course, it wasn’t anywhere near show time. That didn’t stop me. I led Terry up to the roof, found an open door and in we went. We crept down from the heights of the empty building, found the theatre space and went in. And there she was!!! The hero of my life was sitting on the stage talking to a man. As I think about it now, it might have been a consult with the director because there wouldn’t have been a reason for her to be there otherwise. But it seemed perfectly natural to me at the time.

Terry and I crawled down the aisle so no one would see us and went into a row and peeked our heads over the seats to gaze at “Ann Marie.” My heart was bursting with excitement. I wanted to talk to her, but was afraid at the same time. She meant so much to me, it was scary to come face to face with her. Finally we got up the courage and headed up the steps that led backstage. A stagehand saw us and asked what we were doing. I told him we wanted to say hi to Miss Thomas. He said she was busy and that we had to leave. I didn’t argue because, as I said, I was a little afraid to meet her. I’ve often wondered how she would have received us.

Watching “That Girl” every Thursday was an archetypal awakening, and it never left me. Usually as we get older we turn away from what we wanted as children because we realize it was just a childish desire. I never wavered from wanting what I saw on “That Girl.” Even as an adult, I didn’t want to get married and have children; I wanted to have my own apartment in New York and a career.

Well, here I am four decades later. I made it! New York has been all I ever could have asked for and more. A friend and former boss said in his Christmas card last year, “You’ve made good use of New York.” Yes, I have.

I’ve heard so often the idea that people come to New York and remake themselves, but I’ve never agreed. People come to New York so they can become themselves, their true selves, away from narrow and conformist worlds that stifle the individual.

I’m too old now to be That Girl, but I’m This Woman, living happily ever after in New York City. Thank you, Marlo Thomas!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Piano Teacher

This is a disturbing play. I say that as a warning, not an advisement not to go. Playwright Julia Cho begins by creating what seems like a story of Mrs. K, a friendly but lonely retired piano teacher, but in time chillingly reveals the darkness that Mrs. K has been trying to ignore for 36 years.

Elizabeth Franz is wonderful as Mrs. K, which is no surprise. When is Elizabeth Franz not wonderful? I last saw her in her Tony-winning performance as Linda Loman in “Death of a Salesman” opposite Brian Dennehy. In this play she breaks the fourth wall right from the start, addressing the audience as if we were her guests, even leaving the stage with a plate of cookies to offer people in the first rows. She chattily shares how she came to be a piano teacher and other details of her life and marriage. Soon, though, her sunny way fades and we see her loneliness, prompting her to call her former students to ask them to visit. The visits, however, will not be jolly. The students know the secret Mrs. K has been repressing and they want to confront her with it.

Unfortunately not all of the acting contributes to the unraveling. I won’t name the actress who plays Mary Fields, the first of the students to arrive, because I have nothing good to say about her performance. It’s as if someone from the audience had been given the script and asked on the spur of the moment to get up and read the part. She showed no connection to the character, to Mrs. K or the space. I don’t know what director Kate Whoriskey was thinking in keeping this woman in the cast.

John Boyd (in photo with Franz) does a better job as Michael, the other student, although he falls into overacting after awhile.

The set, by Derek McLane, adds to the dark atmosphere. The wallpaper is a dreary gray print, paper that might have been stately decades ago but is now depressing. A lone armchair sits in front of a small TV where Mrs. K spends her days. The piano is at back, covered in part by a printed cloth, but clearly no longer a major player in the life of this house. David Weiner’s lighting is effectively dim.

I feel about his play the way I felt about “Blackbird” (May 6 posting). It’s not a pleasant play, but dramatically it’s arresting, and Franz is unforgettable.

“The Piano Teacher” has been extended for two weeks at the VINEYARD THEATRE, playing until Dec. 23. Visit

Friday, November 23, 2007

Michele LaRue

Just heard from Michele LaRue with two exciting bits of news. She’s started a web site -- -- and signed with an agent -- Agents for the Arts (AFA), Carole Russo, 203 W. 23rd St., New York, NY  10011; 212-229-2562

Michele and I go back more than a dozen years, to our days toiling away at “Back Stage,” the performing arts weekly. She always was an actress, playing the part of a journalist for awhile (doing it well, of course, because she’s a good actress), but now she’s full time doing what she’s supposed to be doing. She’s developed quite a few excellent one-woman shows:

The Yellow Wallpaper
Someone Must Wash the Dishes: An Anti-Suffrage Monologue
Eve's Diary
The Rib Speaks Out
Places, Please, Act One: Poems around and about theatres
Tales Well Told: turn-of-the-century American short stories

Check out her site, and try to get to some of her performances.

Break a leg, Michele!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazing Grace update

I know a lot of people are interested in the new musical “Amazing Grace: The True Story.” (Oct. 17 posting). Here’s an update:

Laurie Gayle Stephenson has been hired as a new cast member for the recording. She starred for two years as Christine in “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway, played opposite Michael Crawford for three years in “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Weber” and was in the original Broadway cast of the “The Secret Garden.” 
She will be Mrs. Catlett, mother of Mary, the woman John Newton loves. Christopher Smith, who has written the book, music and lyrics for the show, is writing a new song for her with a female ensemble; the female ensemble will take a more prominent role with an additional scene. Chris has changed the nature of Mrs. Catlett and Mary's relationship to give their disagreement added pathos and therefore a more satisfying denouement. (Mrs. Catlett doesn’t approve of Newton and wants Mary to marry another man.) 
Adam Jacobs and David Michael Felty, who performed in the concert I wrote about, are confirmed for the recording.  The CD with full orchestra and the Broadway veterans will be released in the spring of 2008. It will likely be recorded with a symphony in London or Seattle and some musicians from Bucks County, PA, as well. 
Chris and his producers are in negotiations with potential venues for a world premiere in early 2009. (Sneak previews would begin at a university in late 2008.) The world premiere will have a complete staging: a full-sized ship,battles, storms, lightning and other effects. The producers have begun negotiations with corporate sponsors and private investors who will fund the production on about the same level as a Broadway national tour (between $8 and $12 million). They are still seeking more so if anyone is interested they should reach out and Chris will get them to a backers’ audition (or bring one to them if there are several supporters in one area.)  The web site is
God willing, the show will then begin its own national tour after the initial run is established. This will include all of the same theatres Broadway tours go to and a few they don't.  

I am so excited about this musical and believe that it will be a big success. I’ve invited them to do a number from the show at next year’s Broadway Blessing, so mark your calendars for Sept. 8 and come to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to catch a glimpse of this powerful show before it takes off big time. And stay tuned to this site for more updates.

(In photo: Karen Burgman, assistant composer, Christopher Smith, concept, music, lyrics and libretto, and Greggory Brandt, director)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Young Frankenstein

The sets and the special effects are spectacular -- they should be, they cost a reported $20 million. But the most important thing, the humor, isn’t there. The book and lyrics just aren’t funny. Line after line and lyric after lyric just hang there. It’s a musical comedy without the comedy.

What a shame that this production is on while truly lovely shows like “Cyrano” and a fabulous musical like “Legally Blonde” are darkened by the strike. “Young Frankenstein” shouldn’t just be dark, it should never have seen the light of day.

The lyrics to a song from the much funnier Mel Brooks musical “The Producers” come to mind: “We are still in shock/Who produced this shlock?”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Overwhelming

This interview with J. T. Rogers appears in the Nov. 16, 2007 issue of "National Catholic Reporter." My review of the play is posted on Oct. 23.

I don’t know when I’ve seen a new drama as compelling as “The Overwhelming.” I was riveted for the entire two hours and 20 minutes of this story centered around an American family, newly arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994 as the genocide is ready to explode. Thanks to a cast that is excellent across the board, it is the most theatrically satisfying evening I have spent in a long time.

Playwright J.T. Rogers, 39, has done an extraordinary job of conveying the confusion and terror of that place and time. He did this without ever having been to east Africa or talking to any Rwandans. But he had followed the events there closely at the time, or as closely as he could.

“There was never any clear explanation in the newspapers for why this came about so suddenly,” he said during a telephone interview from his home in Brooklyn. “It was like, ‘these people do this. It will be over in awhile,’ which was troubling. Being a playwright, I know people don’t just do something like that all of a sudden. It’s not, ‘dominoes this morning or kill my neighbor?’”

The question stayed with him for a decade. He then spent a year researching the country and the massacres and thought, “What would I do if I were in a situation where all the choices lead to monstrous ends?”

Realizing it could be perceived “as un-PC as you can get” for a white man who had never even been there to write about such an unfathomable event, the murder of 800,000 people in 100 days, he uses an American family to do it. They are a college professor, Jack Exley, his African-American second wife who is a nonfiction writer and his teenage son with whom he has a distant relationship. Jack is writing a book about ordinary people who make a difference in the world and wants to interview his college roommate, an African man running a clinic that treats children with AIDS. He also naively expects this time in Africa to be an enriching experience for his son the way his college semester abroad in Sweden had been for him. “I don’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question,” he says, mentioning his students and their sense of entitlement.

“This isn’t Sweden,” a U.S. embassy official tells him dryly.

Because the information and political situation were so dense and would be foreign to many people in the audience, Rogers sought a familiar structure, crafting the play “like an intellectual thriller.” The college roommate has disappeared and the Exley family soon finds out few people in Rwanda in those dangerous times can be trusted. A UN official warns Jack, “You’re seeking answers in a country you don’t know without a language to understand it.”

The final scene is an appropriately terrifying result of the clash of naiveté in the face of hatred and violence. I was breathless.

The play premiered last year at the National Theatre in London. Rogers and director Max Stafford-Clark visited Rwanda prior to that production. “I was terrified I’d get there and start shredding the play,” Rogers says. But except for minor tweaking, the play stayed the same, even after he interviewed many survivors there. “I myself was personally touched,” he said.

What did come into being after the trip was Tim Shortall’s set, which was fashioned from a collage of photos Rogers took. What stands out as one enters the Laura Pels Theatre and what is the final spotlighted image is a statue of the Madonna and Child. It was inspired by one Rogers saw splattered with blood in a Catholic church where dozens of people had been killed.

“It’s an arresting image and it speaks to the complexities and ambiguities,” he says. “Many, many people in the first week were murdered in churches. The churches had always been safe havens.”

But in a country where few people in authority could be trusted, even many priests participated in the genocide. “That people of God could be able to carry out such ungodly deeds are the contradictions that are interesting in any play,” he says.

The realization that people were killing people they knew struck him during his visit to that country, which is the size of Maryland.

“You have to be there to understand how claustrophobic the country is. Everyone knew someone on the list. It’s astonishing.” He said a journalist told him, “Nobody kills a stranger here.”

Audience reaction to “The Overwhelming” has been extremely positive, even at the conservative, subscriber-based Off-Broadway house where it is playing through Dec. 23. Rogers says the run may be extended and that regional theatres have expressed interest in productions of their own. Farrar, Straus & Giroux has just published it, with an interview with Rogers and excerpts of some of his Rwandan interviews.

When I asked him why so few playwrights take on political subjects, Rogers was passionate in his reply.

“There’s a profound hostility to political theatre in this country, especially in this city. The critical establishment is very hostile to anything that smacks of intellectual or political ideas. They get written off as unemotional or preachy. Those are code words. There isn’t any real political discourse in our country.”

For that reason, Rogers thought the play probably would never get produced, but felt he had to write it anyway.

“I’m a playwright, not an essayist. What’s most interesting to me are subjects that are morally complex and don’t have answers.”

Related web site
Roundabout Theatre Company

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Destructive Emotions: Facing Up to Guilt, Fear and Anger

Working through the chapters in this book is like being instructed by an insightful spiritual director or a scripture-based psychologist. I recognized so much of what I had been taught, and learned many new approaches as well, in this workbook by psychologist Florence MacKenzie. It offers a combination of practical examples, solid mental health advice and Christian guidance to help people overcome the toxicity of guilt, fear, worry, anxiety and anger.

Part One sets the ball rolling by dealing with mind renewal, showing us how important it is to control our thoughts and reminding us that we have the power to overcome destructive emotions -- most of which come from wrong thinking or negative past experiences -- through the working of the Holy Spirit within us. MacKenize illustrates all her points through liberal uses of scripture; in fact, each chapter begins and ends with a “memory verse.” To fortify us for the journey of change, she uses 2 Pet. 1:3: “His divine power gives us everything we need for living a godly life.”

MacKenzie knows this is not easy because many people have been hurt deeply and destructive emotions are now ingrained. “Many Christians are living in defeat and not enjoying all God has for them because they don’t know who they are,” she writes. “Perhaps negative events in their pasts have eroded any sense of self-worth they might have had.” For this reason, she uses the first few chapters to make it clear that our foundation is in Christ, and repeats throughout the mantra that “what we believe determines the way we think, which influences how we feel and subsequently act.” But she doesn’t just quote scripture, she offers practical solutions to overcoming our destructive emotions.

The workbook format gives readers space to work out their responses to questions and scriptural references. I like this approach, as opposed to just offering textbook advice, because it focuses our thinking into personal examination. She makes it clear, through quoting Romans 12:2, how changing our thought patterns and emotions will come about: “Let God transform you by changing the way you think.” Each chapter offers a prayer to help in this.

MacKenzie, who studied psychology at Edinburgh University, has been on staff in the School of Psychology at Aberdeen University in Scotland since 1996, lecturing to classes of more than 600 students and teaching psychology in small group settings. She is cofounder of the internet-based Christian ministry, Equipped for Living.

“Destructive Emotions” reflects this strong rootedness in psychology, as well as her faith. “It’s important to recognize that how we perceive and interpret a situation or the way we think or talk to ourselves will determine our emotional response,” she writes. We can’t always control our circumstances, but it is essential that we develop the habit of critically examining our thinking. There are shelves of books devoted to this important idea in Barnes & Noble, but few if any of those are faith-based.

“To become the people God wants us to be by dealing effectively with our destructive emotions is a process, not a one-off event; it’s ongoing, not sudden and immediate,” she writes. And she gives us a promise from 2 Cor. 3:18b that it will all be worth the effort: “And as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him and reflect his glory even more.”

To order this wonderful book, visit

Monday, November 12, 2007

Rick Costa

What a nice surprise. I just heard from Rick Costa, an actor I met when I interviewed him for my book, “Working on the Inside.” He’s really been busy for the last three years:
August 2005 to January 2007 -- 30th anniversary tour of "Annie," as an ensemble member, plus understudy for "Rooster". 

January 2007 to August 2007 -- "Spamalot" at the Wynn Hotel in Vegas, ensemble and understudy for "King Arthur" and "Bedevere".  

Recently he launched his new web site and other job venture with "CostaDigitalEditing" - editing demo reels, films, VHS to DVD transfers etc. Being a terrific and highly experienced actor, he brings a trained theatrical eye to this venture. Check out his site at

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Glorious Ones

I just could not get into this show, at least not until the very end and then I thought, Oh, that was sweet. This is because it isn’t until the end that I could feel any emotional involvement with the characters. Up until then the emphasis had been on the slapstick performances of this 16th century comedy troupe. And that, actually, is another reason I wanted to leave early -- and would have if I had been on the aisle or there had been an intermission. I don’t like slapstick.

This is the first time I haven’t liked, or loved, a musical with lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty. I am a huge fan of theirs. The morning after I saw “Ragtime” I bought the cast recording and have played it often through the years. I LOVED “A Man of No Importance” and gave it a rave in NCR, as I did “Dessa Rose.” I also liked “Seussical” and “Once on this Island.” While I still enjoyed most of Flaherty’s lyrical music in “Glorious,” Ahrens’ lyrics failed for the most part to reach me, except for “I Was Here” at the close, which finally provided the heart the story needed, reflecting as it does the ephemeral nature of an actor’s work and the artistic desire to leave something behind to be remembered by. “The Comedy of Love” upfront was cute and “Rise and Fall” is nice, but out of nearly two dozen songs, that’s not enough to sustain a musical.

The cast, headed by Marc Kudisch, holds no responsibility for my disappointment. They were excellent on both fronts -- lovely voices and skillful timing for all that low comedy.

It’s a shame that the characters weren’t more dimensional throughout, because the idea behind this musical should have appeal to anyone interested in show business. Based on the novel by Francine Prose, "The Glorious Ones" is a backstage musical about the lives, loves, ambitions, and art of the itinerant street performers in a commedia dell’arte troupe in Italy in the late Renaissance.   It tells how the troupe, which specialized in improvisation, came to
be and how it captured the public’s adoration, before scripted plays came into fashion and pushed out their form of entertainment.  Its seven archetypal characters are – the leading man (Kudisch), the harlequin (Jeremy Webb), the “dottore” (John Kassir), the miser (David Patrick Kelly), the leading lady (Natalie Venetia Belcon), the dwarf (Julyana Soelistyo), and the moon woman (Erin Davie).

In the final scene, the characters are looking down from heaven at 20th century comedians in films and on TV and recognize what they used to do and know that it lives on, and that was touching. I just wish it hadn’t taken 90 minutes -- and death -- for them to stop being stock characters and to become human.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The sacred stage

“I write plays because the most powerful form of human communication is a story, and incarnating the text on stage is the strongest way to tell one. For me, seeing life breathed into words is an act of faith that proclaims somehow, in a profound and mysterious way, the Ultimate Word also became flesh.”
--George Halitzka in the Fall 2006 issue of “Christianity & Theatre”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cyrano de Bergerac

Oh, I LOVE this play! I first saw “Cyrano” in 1980 at Baltimore’s CenterStage with F. Murray Abraham. I was so charmed I went back twice. I then saw a production in 1983 or 84 at Syracuse Stage. I don’t know who the Cyrano was then, but he was moving enough for me love the play all over again, although I didn’t care for the rather modern sets; CenterStage’s (by Hugh Landwehr) had been traditional and rich in detail -- just gorgeous.

In the mid-80s I saw the play again, this time at the Kennedy Center with Derek Jacobi, and again the modish set. But still I was entranced by this story of missed love.

So with all these great memories, I went yesterday to see Kevin Kline’s portrayal of the romantic poet and swordsman with the huge nose and white plumed hat, hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed. I wasn’t. I didn’t think I was going to be, but after Kline’s rather c’est la vie approach to Lear last season, I wasn’t sure. But here he plays Cyrano just the way I fell in love with him, the romantic soul grieving for Roxanne and the love he assumes he can never have. He is Cyrano in all his facets -- his bravery, arrogance, insecurity and his passionate, poetic speaking.

All of the other actors are fine, including Jennifer Garner making her Broadway debut. Tom Pye’s set is functional but uninteresting; the flights of stairs that scale the back wall of the stage are often distracting. I kept thinking that if the actors hadn’t gotten to the gym that day it would be all right -- they were getting quite a workout running up and down throughout the show. (I never read the play so I don’t know if stairs factor into it, but the Syracuse Stage and Kennedy Center sets also used lots of steps. I don’t remember that at CenterStage.)

But the set actually doesn’t matter much and in some ways the other actors need only be serviceable. It’s Cyrano and his beautiful language that are so mesmerizing, or they should be and are with the right actor, which Kevin Kline is. I wish I could go back to this production two more times. Or even more. I floated home on air and am still high on the experience. I really only need one word to sum up my feelings -- GO!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Bronx Tale

This show left such a bad taste in my mouth I don’t even feel like writing about it. What it amounts to basically is a 90-minute sentimental look back at a Mafia kingpin named Sonny. This was a man who murdered people in cold blood, yet Chazz Palminteri in this autobiographical show presents him as a patron saint.

I don’t understand this glorification of the Mafia, but I was in the minority last night. The audience loved it. I wonder how a play would go over if it presented fond memories of any of the men accused of some of the sensational crimes in our area recently, those who raped and murdered the young women they met in bars or the two accused of holding the Connecticut family hostage, raping the mother and 11-year-old daughter before killing them and the 17-year-old daughter and setting the house on fire. Murder is murder. This play is a disgusting waste of theatre space.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dividing the Estate

Stick around for the second act. That’s when this play comes alive. The first is mostly what I’ve come to expect from Horton Foote, folks sitting around doing lots of talking that meanders all over the place just like in real life. Only in the theatre this gets a little dull after awhile.

It’s in the second act that the fun starts and the play becomes a lot funnier than I remember Foote’s plays being. Much of the credit for this goes to the playwright’s daughter, Hallie, who is the standout in what is an otherwise ensemble presentation. She had my attention whenever she was onstage, no matter who was talking. Watching her even in her sidelines times it is clear she is completely Mary Jo, the greediest of the relatives in the squabbling Gordon family. She listens intently to the others and is always ready to pounce.

“What do you pay him,” she asks as the rest of the family politely allows 91-year-old longtime servant Doug to ramble on about his thoughts on anything.

Mary Jo has no time for pleasantries. She, her husband and two daughters have come from Houston to the family estate in Harrison, TX, for one reason -- they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and want money. The others have their agendas too, but none is as blunt as Mary Jo. Ms. Foote delivers her lines with perfect dry comic timing.

Another enjoyable performance was delivered by Maggie Lacey as the fiancé of Mary Jo’s nephew, although her character is funny in the opposite way -- she’s so sweet and sunny she’s a great foil to the rest of them. Lacey avoids making her one dimensional, hitting just the right comic sensibility.

The one performance that never hit the mark for me was Elizabeth Ashley’s as the matriarch of this bunch. She comes off more like a lower class in-law who doesn’t quite fit in with her middle-class clan. She doesn’t look or sound like a gentlewoman of the Deep South who would have her Bible always beside her; rather, she seems more as if she were from blue collar Baltimore, with an unconvincing southern accent.

But then, gentility is losing ground in this world where money has been squandered and the grand estate will have to be divided. As the family sits around the dining room table and Mary Jo’s daughter Sissie talks about her silver and china patterns for her upcoming wedding, Mary Jo pointedly remarks, “My silver and china pattern are both discontinued.”

“Mine too,” says her sister, Lucille, sadly.

This sense of transience, in its wistfulness and welcomeness, is true of Horton Foote plays -- and true of life.

Primary Stages’ “Dividing the Estate” runs through Saturday at 59E59 Theaters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Overwhelming

Wow, what a play! I was riveted for the entire two hours and 20 minutes. Playwright J.T. Rogers has done an extraordinary job of conveying the confusion and terror in Rwanda in the days just prior to the 1994 genocide.

He uses an American family to do this. They are a college professor, Jack Exley (Sam Robards), and his family, Linda White-Keeler (Linda Powell), his African-American second wife who is a nonfiction writer, and Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David), Jack’s teenage son with whom he has a distant relationship. Jack is writing a book about ordinary people who make a difference in the world and wants to interview his college roommate, an African man running a clinic that treats children with AIDS. He also naively expects this time in Africa to be an enriching experience for Geoffrey the way his college semester abroad in Sweden had been for him. “I don’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question,” he says, mentioning his students and their sense of entitlement.

“This isn’t Sweden,” Charles Woolsey (James Rebhorn), a U.S. embassy official tells him.

But Jack is optimistic, telling a Hutu politician that he believes the coming elections will bring democracy to the country.

“This is Africa, not Delaware with a lot of black people,” the man replies.

Linda also is naive, thinking she has arrived in “paradise,” but not wanting to be “another tourist waxing eloquent about mother Africa.” Even in the face of warnings she remains calm. “I’m from Detroit,” she says. “You think this is a big deal?”

They learn before long that Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994 is no Sweden, Delaware or Detroit, and certainly not paradise.

Tension mounts as the family learns that few people involved in the growing conflict can be trusted and that the American government knows of the explosive hatred enveloping the country but is unwilling to get involved. “You’re working on a book, I’m working on a pension,” Woolsey tells Jack while practicing his golf swing.

But when Jack still holds out the hope that America or some country will intervene, he is asked: “When has there been a country with a foreign policy based on the right thing to do?”

The final scene is an appropriately terrifying result of the clash of naiveté in the face of hatred and violence. I was breathless.

I don’t know when I’ve seen a new drama this compelling. I won’t be at all surprised if it wins a Pulitzer next spring. Thanks to a cast that is excellent across the board, it is the most theatrically satisfying evening I have spent in a long time.

What’s even more important, it has left me thinking and praying about what I should be doing in the face of similar atrocities now playing out in Darfur and the Congo. I don’t want to be one of those comfortable people who fail to see the suffering and violence. A program note suggests getting involved through organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, so I went online and got the application for Human Rights Watch and sent my check. It doesn’t seem like much in the face of such massive misery, but as Julian of Norwich said, Without God, we can’t; without us, God won’t -- meaning praying isn’t enough. We have to take action too. Luckily there’s still some theatre that can change the way we think, and act.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Love a Piano

This was charming, a lovely way to spend Sunday afternoon, watching six talented performers sing and dance their way through this revue of more than 60 Irving Berlin songs. The staging at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts was simple, but the result was shimmering. It was like being transported back to another, more glamorous time, back before love songs had lyrics like “let’s get it on.” The romantic in me couldn’t help but love a show like this.

“I Love a Piano” follows the life of a 1910 upright piano with one broken key as it is bought and sold, abandoned and found again.  Starting in a music store, the piano moves through different settings and decades as a way of showcasing the songs. Using Berlin’s popular favorites as well as humorous lesser known compositions like “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” this show, which had never been seen in New York City, captures the spirit of a half-century of American history, from the ragtime rhythms of the early 20th century through the Depression and World War II, up to the innocent optimism of the 1950s.  With timeless classics such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “I Love a Piano” does more than define the music of a generation – it defines the music of our country. And in this time of anti-immigrant fervor, let’s not forget that Berlin was an immigrant. What a blessing to our country -- and the performing arts. As Jerome Kern said: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American Music!”.
This clever show was conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley and directed and choreographed by Roderick.  It features musical arrangements by Berkeley and a cast including Mark Baratelli, Darcie Bender, Summer Broyhill, Johnnie Moore, Sean Schwebke, and Karla Shook.  Alex LeFevre directs the nine-piece band.

For me, the afternoon was a homecoming. The Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts is at Brooklyn College, where I taught for six years; for two of which I also was working on my MFA in playwriting. Brooklyn College is part of my soul and it was good to be back. I look forward to returning for other scheduled shows -- “The Nutcracker” in December, a concert by Mandy Patinkin in March and “Evita” in April. And trust me, it’s not hard to get there -- you just take the 2 train to the end of the line, Flatbush Avenue/Brooklyn College and you’re there. My friend Mary Sheeran, who met me there, remarked a couple of times about what a breeze it was -- no wandering around a strange borough looking for a place you’ve never been. Just come up from out of the subway and you’ll see the beautiful tower of BC’s library. Check out the future offerings and maybe I’ll see you there --

Sunday, October 21, 2007


What a disappointment. I’ve read this play and saw the old movie, but I had never seen it live and wonder how much that contributed to my letdown. It is a really talky play, at least in the first act. In the second act Shaw’s superwoman appears and that’s always entertaining. In “Pygmalion” the superwoman is, of course, Eliza Doolittle, and in this production she is engagingly played by Claire Danes making her Broadway debut. Unfortunately, for the most part, the rest of the cast sounds as if they’re doing a first read-through -- there’s just no life in their performances.

Danes gives no hint of being a first-timer, unlike other Hollywood actors who have tried Broadway recently; the worst of which has to have been Julia Roberts whose hands shook and who appeared so scared she could barely move and spoke her lines mechanically. Danes, on the other hand, seems right at home, she owns her space, to use a popular phrase. This is even more remarkable considering I was there on a critics’ night, always a stressful time for actors, and the performance following the Times review, which had panned her. Despite all of this she seemed fully in command of her character, and as if she were enjoying herself as well.

I liked two other performers -- Helen Carey as Mrs. Higgins and Boyd Gaines as Colonel Pickering. Gaines was moving in his most recent performance in last season’s Tony winner, “Journey’s End,” a production that had me in tears at the end.

An actor from whom I expected more was Jay O. Sanders, who had been fabulous as Bottom this summer in the Delacorte’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In “Pygmalion” he’s a wooden Mr. Doolittle, definitely sounding as if he were at an early reading and not the real thing.

The most damaging performance for the production, though, came from Jefferson Mays as Professor Higgins. Yes, we do all have an image of the character from Rex Harrison’s portrayal in the movie musical “My Fair Lady,” and yes, there’s an immature element to Higgins, but Mays plays him at the maturity level of an eighth grade boy. This never worked, not in any scene. Too bad. This actor bowled me over in “I Am My Own Wife,’” his Tony-winning role from several years ago.

Maybe this play just doesn’t transcend the test of time. I suspect, though, that it's this cast that drags it down. It would have been loverly to see it otherwise.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Meet your grace

“Contemplate how you are being asked to give your heart to God amidst your everyday activities. Be prepared to meet your grace in every circumstance of life.”
--Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Amazing Grace: The True Story

“I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.”

The life story behind these words of John Newton is being told in a new musical in development by Christopher Smith. I spent Monday afternoon and evening in Bucks County, PA, attending rehearsals and a concert/reading of this show, “Amazing Grace: The True Story,” and was immensely impressed by the work and richly blessed by the experience of the day.

What a beautiful place Bucks County is, and what loving, welcoming people at Hilltown Baptist Church who hosted the event. Chris had told me the community had been tremendously supportive of him and his effort and, boy, did it show -- in the church people who volunteered and the 1,225 people who turned out, overflowing into two side rooms with video setups.

I had ridden out in the morning on the train with Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt (Marius and Cosette in “Les Miz”) who were playing Newton and Mary Catlett, the love of his life. We were met at the station in Trenton by Rich Timmons, a sweetheart of a person if there ever was one. In the hour’s drive out to Hillside he told us much about the area and pointed out things of interest. Now I know why I’ve always heard that Bucks County is so scenic. It is. It was a nice treat for a New Yorker to get a lovely ride in the country with such a knowledgeable tour guide.

The afternoon of rehearsals was interesting, getting to watch the behind-the-scenes process. Rich’s wife, Julie, made sure we were well fed at lunch and dinner. I enjoyed getting to know the other cast members, especially April Woodall who played Mrs. Catlett, Mary’s mother. She has a gorgeous voice that closed the concert on a soaring note to the heavens.

One of the biggest treat’s of the day was meeting Karen Burgman whom I had done a telephone interview with for her beautiful CD “The Impulse of His Love” (posted Sept. 5). What a warm, loving, joyful young woman. Karen was the pianist for the event and also wrote some of the music. Hearing her play in person was a gift. In addition to the eight soloists, she accompanied a 60-member choir made up of high school students from the Central Bucks High School and West Choirs under the direction of Dr. Joseph Ohrt.

The concert/reading of 11 songs was moving and leaves me with no doubt that Chris has a viable musical in the making. And why not, with a story with so much drama -- the death of a mother at a young age and exile to boarding school, the troubled relationship between father and son, romance, slavery, storm at sea and the dramatic conversion into profound faith. It’s epic, and Chris has captured it all, which actually is a story in itself. A former documentary video producer and police officer, he is completely self-taught and still can’t read music; he composes by ear. But over nine years he has followed his passion and his call and brought the work this far. He thoroughly researched Newton’s life and the history and culture of his time, creating the book, music and lyrics for the show. His next step is to record a concept CD early next year in Prague or London, where costs are a third to half what they are in New York. He will then work on mounting productions outside Manhattan, possibly in Branson, MO, or Lancaster, PA. Then, if his dream comes true, and I believe it will -- Broadway!

The audience response was overwhelmingly positive, but the most touching comment came from a woman who told Adam she had been diagnosed with cancer that day and that the performance had given her great comfort and strength. That’s what a good faith story can do, and that’s why a show like this needs to be out there in the world. As Rich pointed out at the start of the concert, “It’s a true story that’s been waiting 230 years to be told.”

Please pray for this musical and all those involved. If you can, send a contribution or tell a producer. The web site is

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Ritz

This show about a straight man hiding from the mob in a gay bathhouse was probably funny in 1975 when it opened, but as a revival it’s dated. Luckily the evening wasn’t a total loss thanks to Rosie Perez who plays Googie Gomez, a talentless singer at the establishment who, because of the nature of the place, is often mistaken for a transvestite, much to her rage.

Perez is a gifted comedian. I’ve never seen her on stage, but I can still laugh when I think of her performance in the movie “It Could Happen to You.” She’s great here in over-the-top wigs singing show tunes -- “Peoples. Peoples who need peoples” -- in her very bad night club act.

The rest of the show, unfortunately, just proceeds in the way farces do -- lots of in and out of doors and running around -- only without the humor, at least humor that still works.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Don't mess with retirees!

Just got this e-mail from my friend Gina in Germany. I love it -- hope you do too.

From a retired friend comes this tidbit:

Working people frequently ask retired people what they do to make their days interesting. Well, for example, the other day I went downtown and into a shop. I was only there for about 5 minutes and when I came out there was a cop writing out a parking ticket.

I said to him, 'Come on, man, how about giving a retired person a break?'

He ignored me and continued writing the ticket. I called him a Nazi. He glared at me and wrote another ticket for having worn tires. So I called him a 'doughnut-eating Gestapo.' He finished the second ticket and put it on the windshield with the first. Then he wrote a third ticket. This went on for about 20 minutes. The more I abused him the more tickets he wrote.

Personally, I didn't care. I came downtown on the bus, and the car that he was putting the tickets on had a bumper sticker that said 'Republicans in 08.'

I try to have a little fun each day now that I'm retired. It's important to my health.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


I broke a vow to myself last night. I had said I wasn’t going to anymore Manhattan Theatre Club productions at the Biltmore. They are consistently disappointing, to downright dreadful. I broke that vow because of the cast, specifically F. Murray Abraham whom I haven’t seen on stage since the early 1980s when I saw him as Cyrano at my beloved CenterStage in Baltimore. That production and his performance were so marvelous I went back twice.

I also knew Alison Pill to be a new actor to watch, having seen her last season in “Blackbird.”

Unfortunately, neither has much to work with here. Both play one-dimensional characters, as do the rest of the cast in Theresa Rebeck’s play. And that’s just what I usually find wrong with MTC’s Broadway productions, mediocre to bad plays.

The plot revolves, and I use that word loosely, around two half-sisters fighting over the right to a rare stamp collection. The play is probably supposed to be a dark comedy, but the pace is far too slow to sustain a comedy and there is nothing funny, dark or otherwise, about the dialogue.

It certainly isn’t a drama because of the flat characters, clichéd scenarios and lack of relationships between these five people who just happen to inhabit the same stage.

One thing that did stand out as top notch were the self-changing sets by John Lee Beatty. They were a marvel to watch.

At least “Mauritius” wasn’t as bad as others I’ve seen there that had me fleeing the theatre at intermission, never to return. I kept hoping, faintly, that it would get better.

It didn’t.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Gloriae Dei Cantores

When I listen to this group I always think, that must be what heaven sounds like. I first encountered them in “Shining Like the Sun: The Chants of Transfiguration” (see May 31 review.) Then again with “Folk Mass,” which has a misleading title that sounds as if it will feature simple guitar songs; this group is far too musically sophisticated for that. (See June 13 review.)

Now here they are with two new recordings, “He Has Heard My Voice: Psalms of Faithfulness and Hope” and “Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais.” Together they represent the voice of God to me -- loving and comforting in the first and majestic and powerful in the second.

“Voice” is my favorite of these two because the Psalms are a twice daily part of my life. “The Book of Common Prayer,” our Episcopal prayer book, has the 150 Psalms divided into morning and evening prayer for 30 days, so each month for many years now I have been praying all the Psalms. They are my friends, my comforters, my sources of strength. This recording in the Anglican tradition is the second in a series of three.

The singers of Gloriae Dei Cantores give radiant voice to the words I love so much, and when they are accompanied by the organ, they are the personification of praise. This group trained in England in its formative years. According to a press release, chanting psalms is at the heart of their worship, and members engage in personal study of each text. This deep love and understanding of the words is obvious in their singing. It is prayerful, poetic and joyful. I play this CD often.

“Eclipse,” with its organ and brass accompaniment, represents for me the more solemn, mighty side of God. The CD celebrates the centennial of organist/composer Jean Langlais, one of last century’s foremost composers of sacred music, with three of his masses -- “Messe Solennelle, evoking the terrors of the Occupation during World War II and the yearning for peace; “Messe en style ancien,” demonstrating Langlais’ love for Gregorian chant; and “Grant Us Thy Peace.” It is a powerful recording, beautifully played and sung, representing more than 40 years of Langlais’ compositions for choir, organ and brass. It is a worthy tribute to the man and to the glory of God.

To order these CDs, visit For information about Gloriae Dei Cantores, visit

Monday, October 1, 2007

What do you want to be caught dead doing?

I received this essay from Kenny Moore yesterday. His commentaries are always full of blessing and humor. I'm sure you'll enjoy this one.

I had to fly to Pittsburgh on business the other day and I thought I was going to die. Not that anything traumatic happened. In fact, the trip was uneventful. Just the same, I made sure I kissed my wife and hugged the kids before I left for the airport. I've changed my behavior to now consider that this might be the last time I see them before my untimely demise. I get similar feelings when I drive over a bridge or go through a tunnel. Attending a meeting in a tall office building or opening a piece of mail sets off the same alarm.

Airports have become the new chapels of the world. A flight on a plane has become a call to prayer. I'm also finding that it's kind of bizarre leaving my house at 4:00 a.m. to catch a 7 o'clock flight, when the airport "chaplains" don't even make it in till 6:00 a.m. I wind up waiting on line in the dark for an hour or more to bolster patriotism and protect myself from terrorists. I guess it's a spiritual thing.

Psychology 101 taught that most of us live our lives in a serious state of denial about death. Woody Allen said that he didn't mind dying; he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I like living my life that way. It helps me get on with it, remain productive and fight morbid thoughts. Even though I'm aware that I can buy my coffin ahead of time on the web and realize considerable savings, I still avoid the transaction.

However, my life wasn't always one that ran from discussions of death. Or eschewed meditations on the frail human condition. There was a time when it was different.

An Older Tradition

In my younger days, I spent 15 years in a monastic community. They had a spiritual practice called "The Exercise for a Happy Death." Sounds kind of morbid, but if truth be told, it was rather refreshing. On the last day of each month, you spent time alone reflecting on death. It was a chance to see what you were doing right and wrong. A time to leave behind the distractions of the day-to-day world, go inside yourself and get clear on what's important. There would be prayer services and a chance to confess your sins to the priest. Some would spend the time planning their own funerals. Eulogies were occasionally scripted and I'm sure some monks would have prepared PowerPoint presentations if there were computers back then.

There was something called a "Superfluous Box" that was put out for the entire day. The idea was that if you had acquired anything over the past month that you really didn't need or that encroached on your commitment to the simple monastic life, you were to deposit it in the box. It would be given to the poor or more needy members of the community. This was a chance to lighten the load on your personal journey to sanctity. Lunch was intentionally austere to keep the senses focused on eternity. However, "The Exercise for a Happy Death" always ended with full dinner and a special dessert. It represented a spiritual sense of humor: while we spent the day focusing on the grave, life still needed to be lived and celebrated.

Business Transition

My transition from the religious to the secular world has been going on for over 20 years. The most noticeable difference is that when I was in the monastery, 20% of my superiors thought they were Divinely inspired. In business, the number's up to 80%. As we aging baby-boomers confront mortality with cancer, strokes and wrinkles and I put my life on the line just going to work, I consider "The Exercise for a Happy Death" as a practice worth transplanting into the secular world. And my monastic roots are starting to resurface in peculiar ways:

1. I wake up daily with the prospect of death before me;
2. A brief prayer of thanks gets uttered as my feet hit the bedroom floor;
3. At work I become more tolerant of others, wondering if maybe they'll be dead sometime soon;
4. I spend part of my day getting quiet and going inside myself;
5. I write letters and cards to my wife and two young boys that get put away in a box in the basement. When I die, I've arranged that they'll be presented to them as gifts from the grave: expressions of love and remembrance from someone who's gone;
6. On the last day of each month, I eat a hearty dinner and partake of a special dessert to recall that I'm still alive and have other chances to cooperate with the Divine;
7. I give away things I no longer need and look for reasons to put a few bucks in someone else's palm;
8. I acknowledge my mistakes and make it a point to say sorry somewhere in the day;
9. I read obituaries in the newspaper for inspiration, hope and humor. I remain in awe of how the human condition works itself out with zest, flair and a slightly twisted sense of the sacred.

The final curtain

Steven Wright, the comedian, may have nailed it on the head when he said: "I believe I'll live forever. So far, so good!" I don't know if it is ever possible to get in touch with our mortality or fully comprehend the preciousness of life. And it's certainly been more challenging living outside the cloistered walls. I've personally had two near-death experiences over the years. I came away from both with a profound sense of clarity and thankfulness. But alas, it was short-lived. A few months down the road, I was back yelling at the kids, criticizing the wife and complaining about senior management. My therapist said it was a sign of normalcy. I felt like I had lost something precious.

To help regain some of what got lost, I take more risks to scare myself back into clarity. If I could be dead tomorrow, what should I not pass up doing for want of courage? "I wouldn't be caught dead doing that..." gets repositioned into "So what is it that I want to be caught dead doing?" Then I go out and do it. Some might say that's suicidal. I find it enlivening. There are consequences, though. I am living with significantly more guilt, as well as a marked attraction to tomfoolery. The propensity to say, "What the hell ... let's try it" has increased. My wife says it's gotten out of hand. I fear she'll seek revenge when she writes my eulogy.

Fortunately, there are the daily business reminders to keep me on track. All I need do is get ready for my next business trip or open an unsolicited piece of mail. New opportunities are presented once again. I'm learning to take advantage of them ... for who knows? Maybe one day it will all come to an end.

P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at

Kenny Moore
Author of 'The CEO and the Monk'

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Never Too Late: The Songs of Jan Horvath

Now this is different! Usually when a Broadway performer releases a CD, it’s of classic show tunes or love songs in traditional arrangements. Not Jan Horvath, who proves with these 11 songs she wrote that she’s got the heart of a country girl, and a crystal clear voice to go with it.

I really enjoy “Country Lilt,” a quirky little love song reminiscent of those by Kate and Anna McGarrigle: “So if you’re not waiting at the pearly gate/I won’t have to think or even hesitate/I’ll give all the angels back their wings/Their golden harps and all of their things/Yes if you’re not in heaven on judgment day/I’ll know you’ve gone the other way/So to show you that my love is true/I’ll go to hell dear just for you.” What fun!

For inspiration, Horvath includes “Questions” and “Never Too Late,” songs about finding your true path in life, and a lovely number called “Immigrant’s Anthem,” which she premiered with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra in 2005, and most recently sang with The Rochester Philharmonic on a barge in the Erie Canal with about 14,000 people lining the shores. A well-deserved honor; I hope she will have many more opportunities to present it.

As a music critic I am blessed with receiving many CDs that entertain or enrich me. Horvath’s does both. I was fortunate to have this one given to me personally instead of the usual route -- by the FedEx man courtesy of a publicist. I met Jan at Broadway Blessing -- she’s a friend of Phil Hall who was performing (and whom I now consider a friend too!).

Thanks for coming to BB, Jan, and thanks for bringing me this CD. I’m grateful to have it in my collection.

To learn more about Jan Horvath visit her web site at “Never Too Late” is available at

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Dining Room

I love sitting back and watching Gurney-world. His plays are laugh-out-loud funny, but not in a cruel way.
“The Dining Room” is different from other plays of his I’ve seen in that it is MULTI-charactered. The six first-rate actors -- Anne McDonough, Timothy McCracken, Dan Daily, Claire Lautier, Samantha Soule and Mark J. Sullivan -- play about 50 different parts, WASPs of several generations and their servants. The common theme is the importance, or lack thereof, of gathering around the dining room table, and it is portrayed in unrelated scenes. Director Jonathan Silverstein does a lovely job of keeping it all rolling.
I grew up Irish Catholic and not WASP, but my mother had so many of the same sensibilities as the older generation here. We ate dinner every night in the dining room, by candlelight, with the silver and linen napkins, the whole nine yards, only without the servants. Many of the scenes in the play hit home to me, but one in particular brought back memories. Two teenage girls are sitting around the table drinking a mixture of vodka, gin and Fresca waiting for some boys to come over to smoke pot. Helen, the girl who is visiting, is impressed and wants to stay there when the boys arrive. Sarah, who lives there, wants no part of the dining room and all it represents -- formality, gentility, proper ways of doing things.
I was that girl, and the visiting girl in reverse. The first time I had dinner at my grade school friend Terry Hagen’s house I was enthralled because we ate TV dinners in the kitchen with her family. I had never had a TV dinner and was fascinated. We had gone to the stores and selected them, which meant that everybody could have something different and exactly what they wanted. Then we ate them in the containers, which was so cool because the vegetables, potatoes and meat each had their own little walled space instead of all being on a china plate. I thought how lucky Terry was and when I got home I asked my mother if we could start eating TV dinners in the kitchen. Absolutely not, but she did let me do it the next time she went out for dinner. It just wasn’t as much fun doing it by myself. I had never given a thought to eating in the dining room by candlelight, but from then on I envied Terry and her TV dinners in the kitchen. In the play when it is suggested that people nowadays eat in the kitchen, the older generation is horrified and makes it perfectly clear they will not. My mother would agree.
Originally produced in 1982, this delightful revival of “The Dining Room” is presented by Keen Company, which did a poignantly beautiful production of “Tea and Sympathy” earlier this year. It runs through Oct. 14 at The Clurman Theater on Theatre Row.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


What a lovely discovery! I had never heard of Joshua Williams, who wrote and composed the 12 songs on this CD, but his web site says this is his third release. I’ll have to look into the others.

I had reservations initially when I saw the title of the first song -- “Loser for Jesus.” The negativity of the word loser paired with Jesus made me think of that derogatory term from the late 70s, Jesus freak. One listen, though, and I was hooked, as well as dancing and singing along to this country/rock composition. The words make it clear just what kind of loser Williams is talking about: “’Cause I’m a loser for Jesus Christ/I’ve given my all; yes I’m learning to die/I’m a loser for Jesus Christ/I’m ready to lose my life.”

It’s a lively start to a CD that offers a variety of styles. The title track, “Confession,” is a gentle change, with its simple guitar arrangements of Samuel Medley’s 1785 words of contrition and reliance on God’s love and forgiveness to give eternal life.

I also like “Rock of My Salvation” with its catchy folk/rock melody, and the upbeat “This is My God,” which makes my heart soar. The variety continues with “Song Five” and the comforting and beautiful voice of his wife, Kerry Williams, singing the joyful words of the Song of Songs.

In the boldest offering, “Luke 14:26,” Williams is courageous enough to tackle one the most difficult passages in the gospels, Jesus’ tough statement about the need to hate those who are closest to us. I know clergy who avoid this lesson by preaching on the Epistle on the Sunday it appears. But following Jesus isn’t just about joy and praise, it has its challenges as well. Once again with the simplicity of guitar, Williams sings about seeing Jesus perform miracles, feed the hungry, forgive the sinner, and then the shocking part: “But today He did something that/I’ve never seen before/He turned to the largest crowd and said aloud,/ ‘This is from the Lord’/He said you have to hate your father,/and hate your mother/I don’t understand, I can’t comprehend,/. . . I don’t want to know, this can’t be so,/do I really have to die to my life?”

Then he recounts other marvels he has witnessed in following Jesus, including the clincher of them all: “But today He did something that/I’ve never seen before/He gave His life and was crucified,/I know now He is the Lord.” And he understands the context of Jesus’ words, that “this is what love is for. . . I will come to know, ‘cause He told me so,/what it means to die to my life.”

That’s rigorous theology to put over in a song, but Williams doesn’t soft-pedal it, and he reminds us of the daily task we have of putting aside this life for the purpose of advancing God’s kingdom.

I can imagine this CD being a big hit with Christian youth groups, in religious education, on retreats and in church services, but it’s also a good listen everyday for anyone on the journey of faith. You can hear selections at Williams’ web site,, and you can order a copy from I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Impulse of His Love

At first, Karen Piranian Burgman didn’t realize the full impact of what was happening to her. Only a junior in high school, having just won a major competition, she had every reason to expect a fruitful career as a pianist.

But the pain in her hands kept getting worse, creeping in between her fingers until she couldn’t play for more than 10 minutes. The seriousness still didn’t really hit until the hand surgeon looked her in the eye and told her she would never play again, and suggested she take up swimming.

“I was crying,” she remembers. “I said: ‘This isn’t my hobby. This is my life.’ I had studied since I was 5.”

When the shock wore off, she was able to acknowledge something she had actually known all along, music wasn’t her life, God was. And God was getting ready to show her just how well-placed her trust had been. Her career as a pianist wasn’t over. Instead, she was to get an education no conservatory could ever provide. She would use her hands again, but she’d be playing from her soul.

“I had no other agenda except to say what God had done in my life,” said Ms. Burgman, 25, one morning during a telephone interview from her home in North Wales, PA. “Playing the piano is how I express my love for him. Now I feel I have so much more to say.”

Ms. Burgman has poured all her praise and thankfulness into a CD, “The Impulse of His Love,” released this summer by Paraclete Press. It’s a piece of work she never could have anticipated on that day when her tendinitis was diagnosed.

“I had thought, ‘There’s 13 years of training down the drain.’”

But more training was in store, thanks to Sandra Carlock, the coach of a trio of which Ms. Burgman was a member, who offered to work with her one-on-one to help her relearn to play. This involved teaching her to relax, to be in tune with her body and to feel the weight of her fingers on the keys.

A year and a half later, she was off to Oberlin Conservatory for a major in piano performance. The following summer, while she was home in North Wales, her friend Ron Lamar told her she had to make a CD as a way of telling her story.

“I said, ‘I’m just a kid. I’ve just gotten over this injury.’”

But Mr. Lamar held firm and so Ms. Burgman began choosing hymns. She knew “Take My Life and Let It Be” had to be one of them, with its lyrics “take my hands and let them move at the impulse of your love.” She had been playing the piano at her church, Hilltown Baptist, since she was in 10th grade, so she was familiar with many hymns. In improvising them for piano solos, she felt she could personalize them to share her journey.

For three or four weeks she lovingly recorded her arrangements of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” “The Lord’s Prayer” and 11 others. The hymns sounded beautiful and when she was finished she and Mr. Lamar sat down to listen to the tapes. But as they played them, what they heard was not so lovely after all. Birds that had made their home in the ventilation system had been picked up by the high definition recording equipment and could be heard on every number.

“It wasn’t some pretty little birds chirping,” she says. “It was really ugly.”

Not willing to give up, Mr. Lamar said he had the studio for one last hour the next day so they would go back and do the entire program then. Ms. Burgman was aghast. She had poured her whole self into that work. She told him she was spent.

“He said, ‘Then you better get down on your knees and pay for a miracle.’”

She went home and told God she had nothing left to give, that she was empty.

“He said, ‘’That’s exactly where I want you to be.’ I asked the Lord to work through me.”

Once again trusting God, she returned to the studio and improvised all 13 songs in one hour. “I get chills talking about it now,” she says. “He took over my hands. I never played like that before. I was crying. My heart and soul came out in it. That’s what the CD is. It’s unedited, all in one take. It summed up the way God was working in my life.”

For four years she sold the recording on her own at church and her concerts. Then a friend gave one to someone in the acquisitions department at Paraclete and another minor miracle occurred. They wanted to represent her and market the CD the very week she sold her last. Since being released in July, “It has absolutely flown off the shelves here at Paraclete,” said Rachel McKendree, music publicist.

Ms. Burgman thinks she understands why.

“There’s an interest in hymns that basically give a new sound,” she says. “People appreciate the depth of theology, but played with a personal testimony of a life touched by God. It reaches people. There’s no more powerful way to communicate than through the arts.”

To continue this work, she and her husband, Michael, a middle school English teacher, have formed a company, Lifespring Music, for future projects, including a Christmas CD of piano improvisations.

“This thing has a life of its own,” she says. “It’s so much bigger than I ever imagined. God’s hand is in it. It’s been his.”

Related web sites

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

God's fire

Thought you would appreciate this sermon for Pentecost XII, preached Aug. 19 by the Rev. Canon Tom Miller at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

There is a new production of Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan at the National Theatre in London. I attended a preview performance when I was there last month. The play received glowing reviews and has been hailed by one critic as a “potent political masterpiece.” While other writers have told the story by focusing on Joan of Arc as a saint and martyr, it is Shaw’s genius to tell all sides of the story with understanding and surprising impartiality. In Shaw’s treatment, we have some sympathy for church and state in what they perceive is a war of terror that challenges their authority. Then, too, we also get a critical look at Joan’s unbending individualism that threatens anarchy and raises legitimate questions about whether she is prophetic, obsessive, or possibly psychotic. At the very least the play offers a caution about people who claim to have private lines to God.

The play has been called a tragedy with no villains. But then there are no real heroes or heroines either. Despite efforts all round to avoid Joan’s legendary fate, every one, including Joan, is complicit in the outcome of the story – and that outcome is fire, the consuming fire that kills Joan but which also brings everyone to contrition by the final scene. And the cynic might well ask, what has been achieved in the end? Church and state dominate to survive and Joan only eventually becomes a saint as a kind of cosmic consolation prize. And the pattern will continue down to our own day.

It is no great surprise that the National Theatre decided to revive this particular play at this particular time in history. Once again we are playing with fire: nations reacting against threats to their security; religious authority in much of the world colluding with the state to preserve the old order, or at least the order in power, and actors on the world stage, in both leading and supporting roles, getting their instructions directly from God. And it all inevitably ends with fire.

The reality of that fire is all around us: in the flames of war, in flames fanned by fanatics on a mission, in flames ignited by reactionary forces bent on controlling others. And then there are the metaphorical flames to consider: flames of jealousy and insecurity that lead to abuse and murder; flames of hatred and self-righteousness that lead to exclusion and suppression and often enough to actual cruelty and murder; flames of rage and revenge. No wonder hell is pictured as a fiery furnace waiting to consume the sinful. We know that version of hell right here on earth.

And yet, fire is also central to our faith tradition and how we understand God to be with us and working for us. The pillar of fire that led the Hebrews through the wilderness by night is a majestic and reassuring image. Moses encountered the bush that was burning but was not consumed. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth through the Passion about to be played out, and as a result of his death and resurrection, the Apostles received the Pentecostal tongues of flame, that fire that burns within the human heart and mind but does not destroy us, but rather continually inspires us to let God guide us, reveal divine reality to us, and to live in us and through us.

As much as we fear the fires set off by our worst excesses, we welcome the kindling of the spirit we call divine. As we often sing, “Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.” And the hymn continues: “O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.” What a contrast the holy flame offers to humanity’s flirtation with the flames of destruction. From Moses to Jesus, the holy fire burns but does not consume. Holy fire enlivens us and fuels desire for God and for God’s righteousness on earth and in our lives. As William Blake envisioned a new Jerusalem even in the midst of a growing industrialism, the poet cried out, “Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear . . . Bring me my chariot of fire!”

And so, when Jesus declares, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” we might well imagine that he cries out in reference to the holy flame of desire that is already burning in his heart and which will burn with its true brightness only when his own baptism of fire is complete. And the passion with which these words are recorded in Luke’s Gospel is profoundly powerful not only for the souls of the righteous, but for the sake of the world as well. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Divine passion is too powerful not to challenge the established order. Divine passion is bound to unsettle those who experience it and unsettle those who feel terror at what may be prophetic witness but that might all too easily be psychotic delusion. Without such divine fire we would be lost in the flames of our own destruction.

And all this time you thought Jesus was the Good Shepherd, or perhaps you are a devotee of the Suffering Servant, the Teacher or the Great Physician. For you he is the Prince of Peace, Redeemer, or Christ the King. Yes, all right, Jesus is all of these things, but Jesus is also the one who tells us, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” We are given a picture of Jesus as the fire-bearer, the one who brings passionate desire to the earth so we can see what God’s passion looks like. We have seen the presence of God in the burning bush; the persistence of God in the pillar of fire, and now we witness the passion of God emerging from the sacred heart of Jesus, who understood that nothing of the story can be left out. Powers and principalities will play with fires that lead to death and destruction, but God offers flames of holy desire that bring us to life. As many seek glory in the fires of war, it is in the sacred flames of holy desire that we find the true mark of greatness in the world.

Stephen Spender wrote, “I think continually on those who were truly great – The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.” We have been given God’s holy fire to wear in our hearts, to let a holy flame burn at the center of our being. This is not fire to be played with, but fire to kindle and keep a continuing flame burning for the peace and justice of God to prevail in the world.

Bernard Shaw had it right, I think. We are all players in the affairs of the world, we are all complicit in the vain and foolish games we play with fire, and certainly no one is exempt from the destruction that ensues. The whole world suffers when the powerful in either church or state make security or certainty their idol. We suffer too when we keep our faith private and exempt ourselves from the sins of the world.

God does not keep to private places. As Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil.” That shining, that spectacular illumination of God, is the fire Jesus brought to earth. We see it before us, and we have it within us. And nothing can put out that flame except that our indifference can divert our attention from it, our arrogance can blind us to it, and our fears can mistake it for destruction.

The second verse of the hymn “Come down, O Love divine” goes like this: “O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming; and let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.” May we have the wisdom to distinguish the flames of destruction from the fires of passion for life, and seeing the difference, may we not fear the fire of Love divine, and may the glorious light of that burning Love shine on the path before us and make a dwelling in our hearts forever.