Great Chicago Playwrights Exposition

at the Body Politic Theatre

Someone once told me, “A first play is like a first pancake — they should both be thrown away.” That cheap cynicism aside (theaters still produce Henry VI, Part One), the only reason not to produce a first play is, well, because it reads, sounds, and feels like a first play. (This is not a theatrical catch-22; all I mean is we shouldn’t know the growing pains in the final product.) Good intentions, a colorful subject, even beginner’s luck won’t help dialogue whose only function is to occupy talking heads (alias characters) who never show us what they don’t know about themselves or each other. The playwright’s assorted burning truths mean zilch if they can’t find an equivalent in action, conflict, tension — anything that an audience can invest in. A dead giveaway: bad first plays state and restate their themes, with no success at showing them.

A cautionary lesson in how to make a fascinating subject dull, In the Service of Others (the title’s lack of focus is an omen) is a very first play by DeKalb historian Valerie Quinney, cowinner in the full-length category of the Body Politic/Victory Gardens “Play Expo.” Quinney based Service on oral histories she recorded in a North Carolina mill town; they detailed the townsfolks’ still vivid memories of World War I and the influenza epidemic of 1918. The play that evolved from those interviews centers on the town doctor’s wife, a spunky Yankee nurse who is clearly ahead of her time but finds herself mired in a bigoted backwater hamlet that’s way behind its own.

As Service begins, the still idealistic Carey Wright has spent 20 years in voluntary exile from civilized New Hampshire, inhabiting this closed community (population 300 before the epidemic) but never feeling a part of it, and, unkindest rut of all, married to a hard-drinking, womanizing good ol’ boy who takes her very much for granted. Carey once dreamed that a nurse married to a doctor could serve humanity, but it didn’t work out that way; besides nursing, she spends her time teaching the Baptist Sunday School and quoting scripture back at vitriolic Preacher Dudley, a holy terror who despises her as a northern Jezebel. Carey also worries about the cotton dust that keeps killing off the textile workers. Despite her pleas, her husband doesn’t want to upset the mill owner, who just happens to be the uncle who paid for his medical education.

Carey’s first crisis occurs when she and the 13-year-old neighbor girl who adores her decide to defy the minister and, gasp, go swimming. For this Susannah-like crime Carey is expelled from the congregation — though her husband’s almost nightly fornications merely get winked at. The second crisis is of course the inexplicably postponed epidemic (though there’s a ton of clumsy foreshadowing, the first case doesn’t occur until 90 minutes into the play). When her husband dies of this Spanish influenza (suddenly discovering in his delirium all his multiple injustices to his wife), Carey proves her mettle: she’s not one more “fainting dimwit” like these pointless southern ladies; she’s the only hope this town has for anything like modern medicine.

The saddest thing about Service is how a fascinating story rich with anecdotal details becomes an inept play with not one spontaneous moment–mainly because Quinney’s interviews show up just when they shouldn’t. Her heavy-handed, cliche-ridden characters are too busy labeling themselves to ever come to life (Carey: “I need to work.” And: “You cast me out and yet I really never belonged”). We hear a ton of talk about rural medical hardships, but we never see Carey help anyone; her lily-white nurse’s smock immaculate throughout, she tells one worried parent to give the kid an aspirin and keep him cool. If she saved any lives, we don’t know how, and if she lost many (as must have been the case), we glimpse no frustration over her helplessness (that would detract from the retroactive feminism Quinney is pursuing like a fox).

Worse, Carey never earns her righteous explosions — at her husband’s double standard (“Did you ever think you might owe me something?”) or the preacher’s easily targeted hypocrisy — because the provocations are so transparently set up and gratuitous. She’s lived here 20 years — and only now discovers she’s surrounded by yahoos who think women should be chaste, pregnant, or abandoned. The conflicts are strictly by-the numbers and even the epidemic is boring (Quinney missed a major chance to use its details to contrast it with the current AIDS crisis).

No production could breathe life into this dead drama, but James O’Reilly’s static staging underlines its faults. A talented cast underacts the overwritten parts without noticeable conviction. An exception is Virginia Smith, whose courageous Carey fits the definition of a fanatic — someone who redoubles her energy when she’s forgotten her cause. Smith’s best work comes mainly in simply disguising the hot-and-cold, on-and-off emotional treadmill of her incoherent part. Still, it’s infuriating how many times Quinney has Carey restate the obvious in bogus bulletins detailing her mental state — when the playwright never showed it in the first place.

As the husband, Joe Lauck provides too little friction in the marital spats. But he does have one of the play’s few sharp lines, telling the sputtering preacher (a melodramatic Gerry Becker) to give up his pulpit-pounding: “You’ve got to find some way to relax — and reading the Old Testament won’t do it.” Lee Guthrie and Jeffrey Steele play the Perkinses, a cracker couple who divide over whether Carey should go to hell or not — and then over whether they’d rather their daughter be happy or Christian. Jeff Bauer’s dusty, dreary, down-home set contrasts the doctor’s cottage with the Perkinses’ shack; here it’s all that’s authentic.