Compulsively peripatetic, Guare is therefore ubiquitous, and among the places he is habitually found are bookstores. The author has often trumpeted his high regard for classic literature. So it makes sense that perhaps the most terrifying moment in Lydie Breeze, which he's now revised and revived at The New York Theatre Workshop, occurs when a distraught man slices up his masterwork before it can be published.
Lydie Breeze seems to be the work Guare has chosen to toil over until it's worthy of ascension to whatever writers' pantheon he thinks exists. He began fussing over the piece in 1982; it's set in Nantucket, where he once co-founded a theater company. Apparently, the idea was to take a great theme and flesh it out with figures who endure tribulations over an extended period of time--as in the Oresteia of Aeschylus--and thereby create a substantial saga. What has emerged over the intervening years is a look at the members of a late 19th-century commune who watch the utopia on which they've pinned their hopes painfully disintegrate at the same time that the country on the whole is experiencing major throes.
The cosmic theme, then, is the founding (and foundering) of the American Dream. It's embedded in the microcosmic activities of four ambitious but flawed communards. They are the Civil War veterans Joshua Hickman, Dan Grady, and Amos Mason, and Lydie Breeze, the woman who nursed them back to health after they were wounded in battle. Since Guare wrote the first installment, three plays have been mounted and shuffled: Lydie Breeze, Gardenia and Women and Water. Currently on view is a two-part reworking of the project; the umbrella title Lydie Breeze now covers halves titled Bulfinch's Mythology and The Sacredness of the Next Task.
The first begins in 1875 with the jubilant Lydie on a Nantucket beach, reading from Bulfinch. She is interrupted by Joshua, whom she has married and who has just received a rejection letter from Atlantic Monthly editor William Dean Howells. It's about then that Walt Whitman's theory that "a vast similitude interlocks all" is invoked. (It's a theory to which Guare has long subscribed, and which he distilled into the catch phrase "six degrees of separation"). Within minutes the subdued Lydie and the chagrined Joshua are encountered first by Amos Mason, whose illiteracy they have been hoping to correct, and then by Dan Grady, who works as a train conductor and has come home after a shift with a bag of cash stolen from two men who've shot each other.
That the illegally obtained cash both saves the commune from going under and taints its future isn't immediately apparent to the characters, nor is the damage inherent in Lydie's being allied romantically with both Joshua and Dan. But in the play's second act, which takes place in 1884, the beset quartet has been awakened to the tragedy in its misguided utopianism. Joshua is in prison, having murdered Dan in an initially mysterious dispute. But he seems perfectly happy as he educates his fellow inmates, and he has written a book that has found its way to Howells--a discourse on how utopianism can be turned inside out. He's has titled the work Aipotu, and Howells likes it. Whether Joshua should allow his critical memoir to be published, since it includes some unpleasant revelations about the involved parties, becomes an issue when Amos (now a stuffy lawyer) and Lydie (gaunt and gravelly as the result of a disease she has contracted) arrive to talk him out of it. The play ends darkly as Joshua decides not to send the book out into the world, and shreds what he's written.
The second half of Lydie Breeze jumps to 1895, by which time Lydie has hanged herself, leaving behind two daughters: Lydie Breeze Hickman--whose devotion to her mother's memory is tantamount to derangement--and Gussie Hickman--who, calling herself Amos Mason's "secretary," has become his mistress. While on a political junket with presidential aspirant Mason and his supporter William Randolph Hearst, Gussie has returned to Nantucket to seek reconciliation with her tormented father. Jeremiah Grady, Dan's son, has also come back from England where he's an actor known for portraying the monster in a long-running stage adaptation of Frankenstein. His impulse is to revenge his father by killing Joshua.