Chicago Dramatists Workshop

The late Diane Arbus once stated, “By aiming for the specific, you arrive at the general.” Although she was speaking of photography, this principle may apply to any art that attempts to capture human experience. When an artist sets out to create a character who is to be something of everything, the end product is usually not much of anything. This is a common flaw in television writing, the goal of which is to reach the largest possible audience: characters are not people so much as signposts marking the presence of a particular social group, and plots resemble panel discussions more than linear narratives. Among many young playwrights this impulse toward generalization is compounded by their propensity to write of their own lives and families. As they try to impose an artificial orderliness on a natural confusion, they make real and familiar persons more and more like harmless fictions. Life is not that simple, of course, and the wise artist eventually comes to realize that at best art can accurately convey only a very small portion of the great messy universe. Ironically, once the artist realizes this and concentrates on the re-creation of a single individual–with one biography, one point of view, one truth–then what sometimes emerges is an icon with which audiences can identify.

Three of the four plays featured in Chicago Dramatists Workshop’s “Playwrights for the ’90s” illustrate this principle superbly. (The exception is Robert S. Goodman’s I Hope We Get a Bigger Piece of Ham, a sophomoric spoof of the picaresque melodrama–a genre already so hackneyed as to make parody redundant–which appears to have been dashed off the night before scripts were due.) The three works display elegant focus, patient narrative, and meticulous attention to character detail–i.e., minimalist in scope but not structure. The result is three small dramatic gems, cut and polished to precision.

In Jenna Zark’s Foreign Bodies, a young woman learns not to fear death (and, by extension, life) by participating in the Orthodox Jewish ritual preparation of the dead for burial. Like her mother before her, she becomes so comfortable with the continuity of death and life (“We wash the bodies for two reasons,” says a longtime member of the Holy Burial Society. “To purify them ritually and to become familiar with that part of life”) that she finally requests cremation for herself rather than a traditional funeral.

Whether Zark is writing about her own mother, as I suspect she is, is not as important as that she is not writing about my mother or your mother–about whom she knows nothing–but about a very specific mother whom she knows intimately. A mother who, returning late at night after visiting her husband at his military base, slept in the train station until it was time to go to work because the taxi home would have been too expensive. A mother who attended religious services twice a year and slipped outside for a cigarette in the middle of prayer. Who ministered to the dead all her life but refused to accept such ministrations herself. Whose ghost returns to smash the urn containing her ashes and to order her daughter to stop mourning. A human being–with contradictions, eccentricities, strengths, and weaknesses, all portrayed in detail so personalized that we would probably know this character if we met her. And we would want to know this vibrant, extraordinary woman. Superficially Foreign Bodies explores mother-daughter relationships and the necessity of accepting death. But by restricting herself to the story of this mother and this daughter and by allowing only the ritual and prayers of the body washing to remind us that the cycle continues, Zark speaks of all mothers and all daughters and all deaths.

In a similar manner, Keith Huff’s Lou Henry’s Son tells of Karl, an ordinary enough man who blames others for his own errors. When his Mexican girlfriend gets pregnant and refuses to consider his suggestion that she kill the child after it’s born, he reluctantly marries her. But he continues to favor his former fiancee–an Irish girl–even buying presents for her children and not his own. When his rejected son hangs himself, Karl persuades himself that it was an accident. When his daughter grows up mute and suicidal, he sends her to a psychiatric center, where she becomes pregnant by her counselor. When the baby dies under mysterious circumstances, Karl is the first to denounce his daughter as a murderer. However abusive he is, Karl maintains his image of himself as a good and righteous man. “I take responsibility for my mistakes, and what do I get?” he shouts at his wife. “Is that what we are to you?” she snaps back. “Mistakes?” Yet Karl remains human, pleading his case from his own truth–a truth clearly recognizable in its own pathetic logic. And when the counselor succumbs to human frailty, he too acts upon his own truth (though Huff tries to justify his actions by romanticizing his relationship with the teenage girl). Our sympathies are with the victims, of course, but Huff makes us aware at all times that right and wrong, saints and satans are frequently difficult to distinguish in the real world.

This necessary ambiguity is also present in Rick Clute’s Throwaways, a poignantly abbreviated vignette depicting a fleeting allegiance between two runaway teenage boys turned street hustlers. The older of the two is 17 and has AIDS. “You old fart!” his 15-year-old companion teases him before setting out to earn food and hotel money for both of them. “You’re used goods. I’m fresh linen.” The automobile horn that summons the younger boy will spell both their dooms eventually, but Clute offers no social worker, no government program, no political slogan–in short, no alternative–to this destructive path. “We miss you, son,” says the voice of the sick boy’s mother. “D’you really, Ma?” he answers forlornly.

Thirteen actors, six technical staff, and four directors are showcasing these new plays with outstanding competence. Special mention goes to Robert Bundy for his sensitive portrayal of one of the waifs in Throwaways and to Deborah Davis for her portrait of the Jewish matriarch in Foreign Bodies. Beyond-the-call-of-duty commendations go to director Russ Tutterow and the cast of I Hope We Get a Bigger Piece of Ham for their sprightly and enthusiastic staging, a treatment far more professional than the script deserves.

The real stars of this show, however, are the playwrights. They don’t provide us with any answers to the riddles that beset us, but they ask the questions in a manner that can be understood universally.

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