Imagine Drowning

Strawdog Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

Life is like a tin of sardines. We’re all of us looking for the key. –Beyond the Fringe

In one scene from Terry Johnson’s surreal detective drama, an earthbound astronaut named Buddy stands on the beach gazing at the night sky, recalling that once while walking on the moon he sought some answers about life beyond this planet. But all that he managed to learn concerned the earth and his own insignificance–he’s a mere cell within a gigantic sentient being that revolves around the sun.

What’s important in Imagine Drowning is not whether the characters find answers to their questions but what they find instead. Though the play is structured like a mystery, those who come expecting a whodunit will be sorely disappointed. True, the drama has its share of grim surprises and carefully dropped red herrings. But Johnson (best known as the author of the play and 1985 film Insignificance, about Joe DiMaggio, Joseph McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe, and Albert Einstein meeting in a New York hotel room) steadfastly refuses to tie things up with simplistic cop-show explanations. Both playing on and undercutting audience expectations, he promises a thriller but delivers an existential drama that leaves a great many ambiguities intentionally unresolved.

The characters in Imagine Drowning, receiving its midwest premiere at Strawdog, are all searchers of one sort or another. And like Buddy, they all eventually turn inward, learning more about themselves than about the outside world. Jane, a somewhat neurotic and reserved woman (played to perfection by the always excellent Elizabeth Laidlaw), comes to a ramshackle guest house in Cumbria County, England, searching for her husband, David, a journalist who mysteriously disappeared while pursuing a story. David (credibly played by David Warren) had come to interview Tom (the effective if somewhat shrill Michael Dobbs), a disabled left-wing activist who’s one of the proprietors of the guest house. Instead the journalist stumbled on a domestic horror story that forced him to face the reality of his own deeply troubled marriage. Even Johnson’s setting suggests sinister secrets shimmering beneath the surface–Cumbria was in fact the site of a radioactive release in October of 1957.

There are revelations and twists and admissions of deep, dark secrets throughout this intelligent but ultimately disappointing play. At first it seems the rather pat story of a journalist who gets in over his head and turns up dead. But as we learn more about Tom, his crackpot one-man crusades, and his strange relationship with his companion and coproprietor Brenda and her two children–one of whom is a demented horror-movie fanatic–David’s disappearance seems less and less the result of a right-wing conspiracy. The loopy, oh-so-sweet Brenda (in a wonderfully touching performance by Jo Ann Oliver) and the quirky but seemingly forthright Tom soon become menacing characters willing to preserve their secrets at any cost, as this tale of political paranoia in the tradition of Silkwood and The China Syndrome slowly morphs into a family horror story vaguely reminiscent of Buried Child. But in yet another subversion, the play then turns into a treacly plea for self-knowledge and compassion.

In the end, neither Jane nor David has found answers, but they may have come to understand a bit about why they were looking for them. Though she may not have found her husband and he may not have found his story, possibly they’ve both begun to understand the inadequacies that led them to start searching in the first place. The fretful Jane takes a dip in the ocean and returns with a newfound sense of self and independence. David arrives in Cumbria County a cynic, fully convinced that the human race is fatally stupid, but he departs with a greater knowledge of the personal shortcomings behind his cynisicm. And though Brenda may have come to this remote town to escape a dark past, she eventually realizes–like Oedipus, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and the astronaut Buddy–that escaping oneself is not as easy as leaving Kansas.

If all this sounds rather contrived and mechanical–frankly, it is. Johnson’s considerable talent at structuring a drama and crafting compelling, highly literate monologues frequently masks his rather pedestrian observations about man’s place in the universe. And at times his heavy prose teeters precariously on the brink of Jonathan Livingston Seagull-style pseudoinspirational literature and New Age claptrap. Buddy, the eternal philosopher, informs us on one occasion that in the ocean of the world “only compassion will keep you afloat,” and at another point that our options on earth consist of being “baptized” in the new age or remaining “shipwrecked in the old one.”

Overblown, self-conscious meta-phors abound in Imagine Drowning. There are references to the turning tide, to the oceans of humanity, and to drowning both in water and inside oneself. This ponderous blather does little more than slow the flow of the narrative–all the more irritating because the play’s plot and themes would probably work a whole lot better without all the blather. Johnson has created a fascinating medley of characters whose neuroses and strange histories would be more than sufficient for an effective, consistently surprising drama without all the preaching. The loss is all the greater because the Strawdog cast, under the assured direction of Kristin Caskey, is largely excellent: only Richard Shavzin’s bland and unconvincing performance as Buddy mars this otherwise superb production.

Then again, maybe it’s not surprising that only the potential for excellent drama lies beneath the play’s meandering, talky surface, given Johnson’s preoccupation with futile searches that turn up unanticipated discoveries. Clearly the playwright hoped to write a compelling drama, but his efforts produced only a ponderous, didactic lecture far more edifying for the characters than the audience. Ultimately Johnson’s characters don’t find what they’re looking for. Neither did Johnson. And, sadly, neither do we.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Imagine Drowning theater still.