at the Chicago Actors Project

And you may ask yourself, “My God! What have I done?” –Talking Heads.

The earth has two crusts. One made of rock; and the other, of all the horrors people have inflicted on each other since Cain did Abel. The second crust is at least as thick and heavy as the first, and it’s growing thicker and heavier all the time. New debris collect, new strata are formed. Residue from the Holocaust settles over residue from Stalin’s purges, which settles over residue from World War I. And radioactive silt from Hiroshima settles over that. Then come Cambodia, Uganda, South Africa, Argentina, Lebanon, and the atrocity-as-policy tactics of guerrillas and governments from Sri Lanka to Guatemala. Each one adds its bit of blood and bone to the pile. The crust grows thicker and heavier all the time.

But then, too, sometimes it cracks. just slightly, here and there. A little moral tremor ripples through the strata, a fault line opens, and something new wells up from underneath. Something decent. You can feel it happening every so often. In Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. In the American bishops’ letter on nuclear war. In the fall of Marcos, or the activities of organizations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

And maybe, ever so subtly, in Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan & Lemon. Because more than anything, Shawn’s play is an ethical response to horror: a patient, canny demonstration of how willingly we accept–and even love–great wrongs. How we absorb their logic, assert their necessity, justify their violence. And become accomplices in their commission. Right up there alongside the Pol Pots and P.W. Bothas, the Nixons and Kissingers. Every one of us, the play says, is capable of adding, a little something monstrous to the World–especially when the victims are far away and abstract and easily dismissed. Every one of us is capable of convincing himself he’s right.

Shawn approaches his subject almost paleontologically, chipping away at the Vietnam-era horror stratum to unearth and study a pair of its more eccentric specimens. Rigorously, carefully, he traces the process of mind that takes Aunt Dan, an American expatriate teaching at Oxford, from an amiable pragmatism to a truly hairy sort of pseudo-Nietzschean hero worship, centered on–of all people–Henry Kissinger. And from there to her spiritual corruption of Lemon, the 11-year-old daughter of close friends. Narrated by Lemon herself from the vantage point of a reclusive, mean-spirited young adulthood, the play chronicles Dan’s ideology as it runs through several mutations–not at all unlike those of a virus–attaining, finally, the power to kill.

There’s been a good deal of controversy over Shawn’s handling of the ideas presented here. Critics who saw the original production featuring Linda Hunt as Dan complained that her often elegant ravings were tendered without antidote; that Shawn offered no strong counterpoint against which to view them, and so seemed to be endorsing them.

Those charges would be foolish even if they were true. Morality plays and school pageants require absolute clarity; but if theatergoing adults can’t figure out what they think, then Shawn’s point about our susceptibility to sick ideas is more apt than he may have known.

Nevertheless, the charges aren’t true. Shawn quietly but distinctly asserts his opinion of practically everybody–Aunt Dan, especially–and this Steppenwolf production directed by Frank Galati proves it.

Galati provides a bit of ethical guidance of his own, first, by placing the action on Kevin Rigdon’s brooding fun house of a set, with its various chambers creating odd qualities of sound, and its distorting mirrors giving back grotesque visions of audience and cast alike. With her reflection elongated in one of those mirrors, Martha Lavey Greene’s Lemon recalls those classic original illustrations from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: she becomes the confused, manipulated girl who fell down the rabbit hole.

But the most potent commentary is in the characters themselves, as they’re so fascinatingly interpreted by Galati’s cast. The crucial performance, of course, is Molly Regan’s as Aunt Dan, in which she establishes the Oxford scholar’s neurosis and desperation right beside her arrogance and great, withering intellect. Far from the cool theoretician Hunt’s Dan seems to have been, Regan’s is brilliant and terribly sick–a passionate, fanatical builder of verbal fortresses, so isolated, so utterly discredited among her peers that she’s got no choice but to solicit the allegiance of an 11-year-old. Regan’s thoroughly brilliant.

And Greene has a wide-eyed charm that turns thoroughly creepy before she’s done. A long time ago, I saw Greene be marvelous in a performance piece; then she seemed to drop out of sight. It’s a pleasure–if a rather unappealing one, given the role–to see her back. And to see her so intelligently supported by Tom Irwin, Rondi Reed, Tom Zanarini, Carlton Miller, and the very complicatedly irrepressible Al Wilder.

It will be difficult for a thoughtful, understated play like this to really crack the horror crust, but it’s certainly capable of rattling an audience.

Anticipating the angry response he in fact got from critics, Shawn wrote an “appendix” to Aunt Dan & Lemon, explaining his notions about horror and ideas and how they connect. It was written as an essay to be read, but Bob Meyer of the Gare St. Lazare Players saw it as a monologue to be performed. Bob Kohut’s strange, piercing performance of that monologue ran for the first time last fall. Now it can be seen again, at the Chicago Actors Project, across the street from Steppenwolf.

The beauty of the Appendix, like that of Aunt Dan itself, resides in the fact that the show’s only half over when it’s over. Both works insist on being discussed, worried over, argued, taken to heart. Both insist on your commitment, one way or another.

I don’t know whether Shawn’s a great playwright, a great thinker, both, or neither. But he’s done an enormous service to the theater, by allowing it a rare opportunity to think as deeply and disturbingly as it should have been doing all along.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.