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Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ’em all
And, my dear, I’m still here. . . .
I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, c’est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here. . . .
Look who’s here, I’m still here. —Stephen Sondheim, “I’m Still Here” (from Follies)
It is hard not to see Kristine Thatcher’s latest play, commissioned by director Terry McCabe and City Lit Theater and currently receiving its world premiere, through the lens of her biography. And not just because it’s described in the playbill as a “true story.” The play is very much about surviving, and facing mortality, and adapting to change. And Thatcher’s done a lot of all three recently.
In 2012, Thatcher was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer: the cancer had already spread to other parts of the body. This happened around the same time she closed the little theater she’d founded in her hometown of Lansing, Michigan. She has since gone through several rounds of chemotherapy, the most recent of which, according to a December 2017 note Thatcher wrote to followers on her fund-raising website, “killed or calcified all the tumors, but also gave [her] something called myelodysplasia,” which, Thatcher continued, means she has “a 25 percent chance of developing leukemia in the next three or so years.” Not a perfect outcome, to be sure, but the chemo, or rather the successful completion of chemo, gave her a new lease on life, and on playwriting, which she didn’t have the energy to do during her treatments. When she wrote that note, she was working on The Safe House, and though the play’s not about cancer, it’s very much about death and the infirmity of the body. It’s also very much the kind of reflection one makes while heading into an uncertain future.
The Safe House concerns a 32-year-woman (ably played by Kat Evans), fresh from a failed acting career in New York City and broken marriage (her second), who comes home to Michigan to visit her beloved grandmother (by turns fiery, defiant, and vulnerable, as played by Marssie Mencotti) and finds her heading into mental decline. The grandmother denies she has a problem, and wants to stay in the house she built with her husband, while her son, concerned for her safety—she loses track of her medication and almost burned the house down—wants to put her in assisted living.
This is a classic Playwriting 101 dramatic conflict. But the beauty of Thatcher’s play is that it transcends the problem it presents. The question the characters are trying to resolve is not nearly as interesting, or as compelling, as the deeper, thornier problems of living and life they face tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—those tedious, messy, scary, unanswerable, existential questions we grapple with every day, or spend our days avoiding. Who are we? What do we want? Why do we do what we do? Why do we get trapped in destructive patterns? How do we cope with sudden reversals in life? Why do the people we love have to die? Why do we have to die?
Thatcher, a graceful writer with a fine ear for dialogue and a gift for subtle character development, raises these existential questions without tossing her audience into an abyss of pure dread. Instead, she presents us with a charming, sometimes quite funny play that seems on the surface like mere slice-of-life, kitchen-sink realism. (The kitchen sink in Roy Toler’s set actually works.)
The production re-creates onstage Lansing, Michigan, in the early 80s with the attention to detail of a museum diorama. Toler’s set includes a wall phone in the kitchen with an absurdly long phone cord, like many middle-class homes (including my own) had in the pre-cell-phone era. McCabe’s casting is pitch-perfect, and his ensemble’s collective performance strikes a perfect balance of quiet desperation and anxious engagement in the knotty issues of the characters’ lives.
McCabe’s production also re-creates in loving detail the long-gone world of the grandmother’s younger self. But if you open yourself up to the play emotionally, you begin to feel something deeper than mere realism pulsing beneath Thatcher’s words. Thatcher clearly yearns for this past—you can feel it in every line—and the beauty of this play is that she makes her audience start yearning too. And immediately on the heels of that yearning comes something very hard to find the words for—a recognition of the terrible beauty and paradox of living, that life is at once painful and wonderful, terrifying and amazing, awful and too short.
How much has this play been influenced by Thatcher’s experiences as a cancer patient? Or by her current status as someone in remission, with a threat of leukemia on the horizon? It would be presumptuous for me to think I know the answer to this. But I sensed that Thatcher is working at once on two levels: the petty details of everyday life and the deeper mysteries beneath our feet.
Thatcher wrote a play in the mid-80s about the Wisconsin poet Lorine Niedecker. And one of Niedecker’s shorter poems describes well the bittersweet feeling I had leaving this all-too-brief play:
What horror to awake at night
and in the dimness see the light.
Time is white
I’ve spent my life on nothing. v