Playwright Mickle Maher loves putting oversize characters in inconsequential situations. In his 1999 An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by John Faustus on This His Final Evening, the titular German megalomaniac tells us he plans to spend his final hour on earth speaking “to a group of strangers about nothing in particular”—and doesn’t disappoint. In The Hunchback Variations—a 2001 piece that Maher and composer Mark Messing are now turning into an opera—Beethoven and Quasimodo conduct a panel discussion about their attempts to produce a fleeting sound effect mentioned exactly once in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. And in The Strangerer, which premiered in 2007, George W. Bush and John Kerry are so bored with their presidential debate that they mostly ponder ways to murder moderator Jim Lehrer.
Against all logic, Maher creates stage worlds designed specifically to lack dramatic potential. But this banality turns out to be a source of rich humor—the seemingly idiotic setups are hilarious. It’s also an impish attack on the common notion that contemporary playwrights have to tackle hot-button social issues. Mostly, though, it’s a good way to create a pervasive strangeness. The action—or lack thereof—floats in an indefinable, quasi-lyrical realm where Maher’s deliberately overwrought prose reverberates with an unaccountable profundity.
Now getting an engrossing premiere production from Theater Oobleck, Maher’s ludicrous, heartbreaking There Is a Happiness That Morning Is alters the formula slightly: this time the characters are as inconsequential as their situation. And the result, paradoxically, is his most powerful play to date.
Ellen and Bernard are poetry professors at a failing liberal arts college. Longtime lovers, both lecture on William Blake—although Bernard has no academic credentials and teaches only one class. Last night they were so moved while reading Blake’s poetry aloud to a group of students gathered outdoors that they stripped naked and had sex. The school’s president happened to view the spectacle and, outraged, rushed to the scene, where he threw a ratty mud mat over the lovers for decency’s sake.
Now Ellen and Bernard must explain themselves to the students—in rhyming couplets—if they want to keep their jobs. Bernard insists the impromptu sex show was the apotheosis of Blake’s philosophy. “William Blake was a fan of free love,” he tells his class. “No mysteries, and nothing hid.” Ellen is more blunt. If Blake’s poetry says anything, she states, it’s “fuck someone.”
But the two come to loggerheads over the president’s insistence that they apologize for what they did. Bernard, whose knowledge of Blake is apparently limited to the exuberantly childlike “Infant Joy,” from Songs of Innocence, would gladly comply, because nothing can detract from the Blakean exultation he achieved in the grass. Ellen, who dwells on Blake’s foreboding “The Sick Rose,” from Songs of Experience, rejects the president’s attempt to “hide away all love, make public, shame.”
But Ellen also harbors a secret even more troubling to her than the tumor recently discovered in her abdomen. Like the “invisible worm” that destroys beauty in “The Sick Rose,” the president’s mud-mat intervention has killed her love for Bernard. “I felt it curl away, just sigh and go,” she laments. And if something so trivial could kill it, perhaps it was a sham all along.
Meanwhile, the president has his own dark, debilitating love to reveal.
As in Maher’s other plays, the characters here do almost nothing but explain themselves for 90 minutes. But the stasis is breathlessly urgent, as their fates depend on having their explanations understood and accepted. Three of Chicago’s most intelligent, flexible fringe actors make up the cast—Colm O’Reilly as Bernard, Diana Slickman as Ellen, and Kirk Anderson as the president—and whether ruminating on 18th-century poetry, academic minutiae, or love’s transience, they make Maher’s intricate, demanding text ring true at nearly every turn.
It’s Slickman’s gut-wrenching performance that reveals the play’s surprising depth, though. Her harrowing confrontation with a kind of dual mortality—her love and her life both hang in the balance—is soul shaking. And she pulls it off in rhyming pentameter.