All Over the Map
A Drawer Boy in Pittsburgh, a Patriot in L.A., and Unspoken Prayers in Chicago
Marshall W. Mason comes to Pittsburgh to direct The Drawer Boy for the Pittsburgh Public Theater. Canadian playwright Michael Healey's comedy centers around a young, naïve actor who, in doing research for a play, moves in with two middle-aged farmers and sets into motion events that will change all of their lives. "The kid notices right away that one of the two farmers is what he terms 'simple,'" says Mason. "The man has memory problems as a result of an injury he suffered during World War II when the two men [the farmers] were friends and fellow soldiers. When you encounter these two guys, you think, 'What is their story?' So the play has this sort of mystery that pulls you into it."
The plot was partly inspired by The Farm Show, a documentary theater project in Canada circa 1972. For that production, the members of a collective theater troupe went to live with various farmers, interviewed them, and created a show. "I think it's a fascinating way to go about investigating a subject of interest to a group of artists," says Mason regarding the documentary impulse that has driven collaborative theatrical works such as this one and, more recently, The Laramie Project and The Exonerated. Mason doesn't feel that this kind of thing always provides as coherent a vision as that of a single author, but he adds that "you can't just sit around and wait, hoping that someday, some playwright is going to write about something you care about."
As a professor at Arizona State University, Mason is currently teaching a course called "Creating New Work through Collaboration." In addition, he's had long-term, ongoing associations with playwright Lanford Wilson and with other artists from the now defunct Circle Rep, which Mason and Wilson helped co-found in 1969.
Drawer Boy reunites Mason with several of his former colleagues, including actor Jimmie Ray Weeks, set designer David Potts, and costume designer Jennifer von Mayrhauser. "I know art is never easy," he states. "But it's so lovely when you're working with like-minded people who really can respond to your slightest artistic impulse, see where you're going, and come up with wonderful ideas."
John Osborne's A Patriot for Me receives its first production by an American theater troupe courtesy of the Write Act Repertory Company in Los Angeles. "The sheer scope of it is intimidating," says director Larry McCallister, "but the play has a great deal of value as a theatrical offering. And, as far as I'm concerned, its relevance continues to grow as we bully our way into the 21st century."
Patriot is based on the life of Colonel Alfred Redl, chief of military counterintelligence for the Austro-Hungarian empire just prior to World War I. It follows the spymaster from his early days as a lieutenant and closeted homosexual to his fall from grace due to treasonous activities. McCallister is quick to point out, however, that "the character's downfall comes about because of indiscretion and arrogance rather than his sexuality." Indeed, when the play was first presented in 1965, it was condemned by the Lord Chamberlain for its sympathetic portrayal of homosexuals and, in particular, of men in drag. "The centerpiece of the play is this period-authentic drag ball," says McCallister. "The dress uniforms are exchanged for corsets, garters, and fabulous gowns."
Some may find it surprising that Osborne -- best known for his groundbreaking work, Look Back in Anger -- penned such a play, but McCallister sees a continuity within the playwright's oeuvre. "John Osborne revolutionized the British stage in the post-World War II era with what was dubbed his 'angry young man' social commentary," he states. "Patriot is quite clearly from the same source. Osborne here is attacking outdated political, social, and sexual conventions with the same ferocity as he does in his earlier works, but I think Patriot is a more subtextual play and shows him maturing as a writer."
McCallister utilizes a cast of 12 men and two women; they play more than 50 characters within the piece, which spans the years 1890-1913. According to the director, A Patriot for Me remains timely in many ways. "Redl's fall in 1913 helped create an intelligence vacuum in the region where Archduke Ferdinand would be assassinated a year later, leading to World War I," says McCallister. "Part of the resolution of that war was the re-parceling of various Middle Eastern territories and the formation of the state of Iraq. We need to remain aware -- leaders and patriots alike -- that the smallest gestures can resonate into the grandest actions and thus need to be carefully considered."
KEEPING THE FAITH
A young girl is murdered and her 16-year-old killer faces the death penalty. Claudia Allen's Unspoken Prayers, receiving its world premiere at the Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, wrestles with the tough moral questions that face the girl's family following such a senseless and brutal act. "I think the death penalty is one of the big moral questions of not only our time but all time," says Allen. "I've joked that I want the audience to leave arguing amongst themselves. I want marriages to be in trouble over this play.
"The older sister of the murder victim is a good, liberal college kid and just doesn't believe in the death penalty," Allen continues. "The father would like to go out there and fry the guy himself. And in the middle is the mother, who is trying to decide what would be the best way to honor her dead daughter. She's the moral compass of the play. It's her trying to figure that out and to deal with loss."
Juggling these multiple perspectives was a bit of a challenge for Allen. "Initially, I thought that I would write something where people got up there and speechified and quoted from deep things," she deadpans. "In the writing, I realized that if I did it in a much more personal way, I could touch the audience a lot better than having someone harangue at them."
The play features soap opera star Taylor Miller -- best known for her role as Nina Cortlandt on All My Children -- as the mother, Billie. "She's a real team player," says Allen. "It's always important for the first production to get all the parts filled by the right person so that you really see your vision of the play. And I can't imagine a better cast for this show."