at Stage Left Theatre
I had a friend in college who was convinced that he was destined to write a great play someday. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stop thinking about what English professors might say about his work 100 years from now. So instead of writing his play, my friend spent all his free time working out in obsessive detail just what his play would mean, which literary references he would slyly slip into the story, what mythological figures were signified by this or that character, and how his play would fit into the traditions of American, English, and European theater.
Eventually it became clear to everyone but my friend that he would never get around to writing the play, and that even if he did, he’d have to be the next O’Neill or Ibsen to create a play that meant all that he wanted it to mean.
I thought about my friend the other night after seeing Jeff Helgeson’s play Graces and speaking with Helgeson after the show. Like my friend, Helgeson has consciously and in excruciating detail pondered his play’s various levels of meaning, its literary, biblical, and mythological references, and which other plays it resembles (Helgeson’s example: A Streetcar Named Desire). The three women in the play, Helgeson told me, represent at once the three Graces, the three witches in Macbeth, three Olympian goddesses–Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite–and the three women at Christ’s tomb when the rock was rolled away.
The point of his play, he went on to say, is to reveal how these three very different women–the middle-aged and maternal Doris, the kittenish Brenda, the cool and manipulative Janet–are really “three sides of the same triangle,” a point that’s supposed to become most apparent at the end of the play, when, to quote Helgeson’s press release, “the identities of the actresses, the characters whom they represent, and the three Graces of classical antiquity are blurred . . . together into an image of the archetypical roles of woman: nurturing, understanding, and passion.”
This aggressive attempt to tell us what the play means would be more palatable if Helgeson’s play was really as rich, lively, and charged with ideas as his description suggests. It isn’t. Unlike, say, Tom Mula’s The Golem–another play that consciously presents characters who are at once individuals and archetypes–Helgeson’s play is strangely inert and passionless.
His story is stuffed full of classical and literary allusions–including, according to Helgeson, quotations from the works of Aeschylus, Robert Burns, August Strindberg, and even Shakespeare. But it’s so trite–three women rehearse a god-awful school play and in the process come to learn about each other and themselves–that his allusions don’t do anything for the story except show how well-read the playwright is.
Helgeson, for all his academic hot air, has nothing new to say. Not about women–Doris, Janet, and Brenda are little more than idealized male projections of women. Not about theater–Helgeson’s easy swipes at Method acting hardly add up to an informed critique of American theater. Not even about mythology and how it informs our everyday life–for all his talk about blurring the boundaries between individual characters and the archetypes they represent, Helgeson has created characters who are strikingly empty.
They would be even more so if director Roger Smart hadn’t been able to find such capable actresses as Sandy Morris, Carol Wilson, and Marci Kipnis. Each actress manages to enliven a stilted and otherwise lifeless text. Wilson in particular won my admiration for the heroic way she makes her threadbare housewife’s problem (should I or shouldn’t I leave my loveless marriage?) seem like something new worth pondering.
But the actress who really shines is Kipnis. She perfectly embodies all that is attractive about Brenda–her youth, her openness, her spontaneity and awareness of her feelings–while also evoking those facets of her character that make her more than just another flirty sex kitten: her rebelliousness, her refusal to accept bullshit, her insistence on thinking for herself. Watching Kipnis burn her way through this mechanical, overwritten, pretentious material, it’s hard not to wonder what she would be like in a really good play.
Kipnis is the only one of the three who successfully evokes the archetype Helgeson claims informs her character (Aphrodite). Not that I blame Morris and Wilson for not being able to convincingly communicate that they represent, respectively, Athena and Hera. The classical allusions aren’t in the play to help the actresses play their characters better. They are there to make a pointless, dull play seem intellectually respectable–especially to those far-off professors.