Beth Henley's Family Week and Anna Deavere Smith's House Arrest
There are some theater artists, not many, whose work I'm always glad to see, even when it isn't their best. Their presence, the mere fact that they are working, is happy news, and their ambition feels like a gift whether it's realized or not. Strong, original vision tends to bleed through miscalculations, which in these cases (at least for viewers not blinded by disappointment or schadenfreude) end up looking like the fallout of frustrating but worthwhile battles that more compromising spirits wouldn't have bothered waging. Beth Henley and Anna Deavere Smith are such artists.
The action takes place at a quasi-absurd institution called the Pastures Recovery Center, located "on an American desert," where a woman named Claire is being treated for a mental breakdown following her son Daniel's murder and her husband's request for a divorce. She is obviously in real pain?and the role is played marvelously by Angelina Phillips, who papers over the raw wounds with a brittle politeness?but she and her caretakers nevertheless speak only in terms of trendy syndromes, such as "eating disorder" and "abuse survival." Easily construed as a simple sendup of the therapy industry, the deeper point of this ridiculously limited catchphrase prison, as it might be called, seems to be to underscore the unspeakable nature of distress like Claire's. As her mother says at one point to Claire's daughter: "I don't think your mother has an eating disorder. I just think they don't have enough people who are going through what she's going through to make up a whole group."
Henley clearly enjoys establishing the bogus outlines of "family week," a visiting period at the center that involves rigidly controlled confession-sessions between patients and their relatives in which all feelings must be categorized according to one of six words (anger, pain, shame, guilt, fear, loneliness). Unfortunately, the limits of this joke are exhausted way before the end (and, frankly, one would've expected a writer of Henley's gifts to notice this), but as long as the humor holds up, the impoverished language functions as a fascinatingly strange context for revealing the family's various resentments and dysfunctions (family dysfunction being this author's field of proven expertise). Claire's sister Rickey, for instance, a chainsmoking, hard-drinking, pill-popping wastrel played with wonderful frazzled exhaustion by Carol Kane, opens the play with a fervent monologue about spiritual lostness, and Claire's curt response is: "I can't give you any money." Their mother Lena, also terrifically played with a mixture of suave exasperation and patience by Rose Gregorio, similarly explains her damaged relationship to Rickey in a treacly speech capped with an understated zinger: "...She was a beautiful child full of energy and confidence. There was something about her I didn't like." The following gently cruel exchange with Kay (Julia Weldon), Claire's bored and disaffected teenage daughter, could stand beside anything else Henley has written. "Kay: I have full cheeks, so even when I'm thin I look fat. Lena: It's impolite to talk negatively about your appearance. It obliges others to flatter you. Kay: I don't want you to flatter me. I wouldn't believe it because it wouldn't be true. Rickey: It is true. You're beautiful. Lena: You're a beautiful girl. Kay: I'm not. Lena: When someone gives you a compliment, please learn to say, 'Thank you.'"
For reasons I won't venture to speculate about (she has hinted in an interview that the material may have a personal source), Henley has trouble sustaining this tricky balance between satire and sentimental realism, as she often has before. After six or seven scenes, the dryly observant wit is overtaken by grim and predictable psychological explication. The women no longer blithely drop accusatory bombs as if exchanging offhand niceties but rather bicker and carp in full earnest. A potentially rich device in which each of the family members dons a blue coat and doubles as a counselor at the center comes to nothing, and the plot eventually feels abandoned rather than resolved by the series of dull and directionless soliloquies that stand in for a second act.
There is a nicely acted mother-daughter reconciliation that cheats dramaturgically, since it's built on the introduction of a new buzzword ("joy") that the other family members had no use of, and a facile, passing implication that Rickey's problems come down to child abuse by her grandfather. I kept waiting for clever Henley to stand up suddenly and reveal her true feathers, redeeming everything with some last-minute surprise that shed new, unpredictable light?say, bringing on Claire's estranged husband about whom so much is said but who never arrives. Nothing in the later text really justified those hopes, however.
Ulu Grosbard's rudderless direction contributes to the work's unfinished feeling, as does John Arnone's inexplicably banal and unimaginative set: a visually inert, drably bare space with scattered institutional chairs, a wicker couch and coffee table and a single French door leaning idly against the back wall.
Anna Deavere Smith also had focusing problems in her show House Arrest: A Search for American Character In and Around the White House, Past and Present, whose sprawling subtitle was itself an inadvertent confession of frustration in molding the material. Begun in 1995 as part of Smith's ongoing investigation of national character through interviews on selected issues or events, House Arrest differed from Fires in the Mirror (on the Crown Heights riots, premiered 1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (on the L.A. riots, premiered 1993) by concentrating on an office rather than an event, and on interviews with powerful people with practiced public voices rather than on figures whose voices she rescued from obscurity. Like the two previous pieces, this one was performed as a solo show (despite having involved up to 14 actors when previously produced in other cities), with Smith impersonating the interviewees. It also included occasional recordings of herself asking questions, more text than before drawn from sources other than interviews (Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia," a Walt Whitman article and the play being performed when Lincoln was shot, for instance) as well as much more elaborate stage business (projections, costumes, moveable set pieces and props).
The problem with trying to use the American presidency as a focus for anything is the extent to which it is all things to all people. The topic is inherently diffuse (or explosive, if you prefer), because there's no issue of broad importance, past or present, that can't be construed as directly linked to it. Smith began this project long before the Lewinsky scandal or the DNA-revelations about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but these seem to have announced themselves along the way as the stuff of an overarching theme or editorial viewpoint?which she adopted and then shrunk from. Her massive research is certainly admirable ("we cut 10,000 tapes," she says in the program), as is the intelligence with which she probed the numerous hard-to-align themes, but the truth is, the topic of presidential character was too woolly to begin with to withstand further generalization in a broad evening's survey (regardless of how many fascinatingly specific digressions were added to it).
Among the subjects in only the first half were: crusty Studs Terkel, speaking about the clownish character of contemporary American life; George Stephanopoulos, explaining the fishbowl experience of being president as if he discovered the phenomenon; James Callender, the vindictive, alcoholic journalist who first printed the Sally Hemings allegation in 1802, speaking from his article; various Jefferson scholars revealing their own agendas by arguing back and forth about his sexuality and ambiguous morality; R.W. Apple, pompously ruing modern-day cynicism; Lizzie McDuffie, FDR's black White House cook, affectionately discussing his habits and admitting she was "peeved" at not being told he was dying; Gary Hart, accusing the press of wanting to control the political process; Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave explaining with anomalous pride how she became dressmaker to Mrs. Lincoln; Brian Palmer, a former photographer for U.S. News & World Report, comparing the pressure of being a White House photographer to that of Secret Service agents; and Ann Richards, describing her wait at a Dallas reception where JFK was expected the day he was shot. All these episodes were compelling but also as hard to form into a coherent arc as they sound. The uneven quality of Smith's impressions was also much more a factor than in her previous pieces.
Despite all this, my main emotion when leaving House Arrest was gratitude?simply because Smith had bothered to press on through her frustration without falling into oversimplification, raising and clarifying so many vital and complex questions. Who else currently working in our theater, after all, gives a flying soundbite about such matters as the social metaphor of the panopticon, the moral stakes of voluntary discretion in the press, the continuing neglect of children produced in power relationships a century and half after the Civil War, and the historical roots of Northern (read: "liberal") racism in the decades following the American Revolution? Smith's unique, restless presence ought to be cherished, particularly when she dares to bite off more than anyone could possibly chew.
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