My new play, Nothing Personal, opened last night at Plan B Theatre at the Rose Wagner Studio Theater, in Salt Lake. I know, I know–how narcissistic, he’s writing about him watching his play. Forgive me. But this play is pretty. . . different.
It’s a strange experience anyway, watching a play you’ve written performed for an audience. My wife’s teasing has cured me of my worst habits; mouthing the lines along with the actors, moaning in distress at the tiniest production glitches, writhing in my chair. Still, I managed to make a spectacle of myself. I had my cane with me, and shifting positions at one point, I managed to drop it onto the riser where I was seated. Clatter clatter, crash. The actors didn’t seem to notice, but afterwards, I learned, yeah, they had.
Nothing Personal started off as a play about Kenneth Starr and Susan McDougal, about the Clinton-era independent prosecutor’s pursuit of any and every sexual indiscretion committed by the President. Odd, of course, since Starr was actually supposed to be investigating a real estate deal gone bust. But prurience will out, and the national fascination with Monica Lewinsky’s stained dress became our take-away. In the middle of it all was Susan McDougal, who served eighteen months in prison for contempt for court for refusing to testify regarding a false accusation of adultery made by chief Whitewater accuser David Hale.
I was fascinated by Susan. I loved her integrity, and consider her essentially the one genuinely heroic figure in the whole Whitewater debacle. And my initial impulse was to write a play about her, about her travails. But as I worked on the play, I kept wanting to expand it. I wrote the play mostly in the mid 2000s, the high water mark of the Bush war on terror, and allusions to ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques and black sites and Gitmo, and other violations of human rights kept encroaching into the play. So finally, I gave up. It’s no longer a play about Kenneth Starr and Susan McDougal. It’s about “Kenneth” and “Susan”, abuser and victim. And it ranges very widely indeed from the actual facts of Whitewater, though with just enough specificity to ground it.
There are only three characters, only two of whom speak (mostly.) Kenneth is played by Kirt Bateman, an astonishing local actor who has been in two of my other plays, and enriched both with his extraordinary talent. Susan is played by April Fossen, who also starred in my play Miasma, and completely rocked the leading role in Suffrage, another recent Plan B offering. The third, mostly silent character, the Matron, is played by Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, an actress I didn’t know previously, but someone I have quickly become friends with.
The experience of watching the play is: intense. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it on stage before. It really is like seeing someone we’ve come to care about being mistreated, eventually even tortured. You feel completely hopeless, helpless. Some audience members haven’t been able to handle it–a small handful have left early.
The play has seven scenes, and scene six is perhaps the most intense. As the scene ended, I said, under my breath, a little swear word. Completely involuntary. I’ve seen that scene in rehearsal many times. Heck, I wrote it. But I was shaken, shaky, distraught. That’s an odd reaction, even for me–and as I say, I’m usually a basket case while watching my stuff. But it was as though I didn’t know what was going to happen next, I so completely identified with April Fossen’s performance. My reaction was visceral. That horrible woman and that awful man are going to hurt that nice young woman! (Speaking of two actors I love, people I signed off on casting!)
I’m awful that way, though. I’ve been doing theatre all my life, ever since, age six, I got to perform in the opera Peter Grimes with my Dad. But a few years ago, I was watching Arsenic and Old Lace in a fine BYU production. The actresses who played the two murderous old ladies are life-long friends of mine. I passed by the set as it was being built every day on my way to my car. And still, watching the play in production, every time the two old ladies exited, I imagined them going to a real kitchen, making real tea or real sandwiches. Even though I knew, absolutely knew, there was no kitchen backstage, and in fact they were heading backstage to sit in chairs drinking water waiting for their next entrance.
I suspend disbelief, is what I’m saying. And so, last night, watching my play, that I wrote, in performance, having previously seen it in rehearsal, I didn’t think ‘dang, April is giving a tremendous performance, holy cow Kirt is great in this, my golly Dee-Dee is amazing.’ That was all true, but that wasn’t what I thought. What I thought was ‘that poor woman. Those awful people persecuting her.’
That’s live theatre. It’s the ultimate exercise in compassion and empathy. And yes, it’s artificial, it’s a simulacrum of reality, it’s just art and artifice. The characters aren’t people, they’re constructs of language. But we believe. And we care. And from that, we think new thoughts and consider new ideas, and deeply engage with, yes, a fiction, but a fiction that speaks truer than Truth.
Or so I thought and so I felt last night.
Nothing Personal runs through Nov. 3. Tickets are still available.