Theatre of the Reconstruction

There’s something malignant in the world–Orlando, the torturer, in Maria Irene Fornes’s The Conduct of Life

Watch me now: I’m about to Discern a Trend.

It has to do with all these plays I’ve been seeing lately in which some horror, some awful foreign thing, makes its way into a family and destroys it. No, the thing’s not AIDS or cable television. It’s not really even a thing. At its most virulent, as in Maria Irene Fornes’s The Danube, it’s a kind of invisible vapor–or elusive germ or strangely attenuated bomb–that attacks a man and a woman, eventually destroying them, their loved ones, and maybe the world.

But this thing also appears as a violent moral sickness, infecting, for instance, the domestic life of a Latin American military officer, in Fornes’s The Conduct of Life. And as a corrosive mistrust, undermining the relationship of a middle-aged married couple, in Peter Nichols’s Passion Play. And as a dirty secret, shutting down communications between a Klansman and his wife, in Darrah Cloud’s The Stick Wife.

The thing, whatever it is, is at the heart of each of these recently produced plays, taking on various forms and nuances, but always exhibiting the same basic pathology: first, a profound sense of contradiction between public and private faces–between the ugly business and the loving family, the cultivated ego and the low urge, the sick environment and the healthy self, good and evil–followed by a gradual weakening of the defenses, the immune system that keeps those faces separated; until what’s ugly and low and sick and evil invades what’s loving and cultivated and healthy and good.

And annihilates it.

The thing acts, in short, like a malignancy. The plays are Malignancy Plays. They share a tendency to portray men as carriers and women as victims. They take disease as a model for structure. They suggest that even an apparently strong body is susceptible. They’re in perfect sync with the age of Reagan–the Cancer President, who keeps smiling while corruption eats his nose, his wife, and William Casey’s brain. They’re about the pretense of health in a time of plague.

Enemies of the Moon is a Malignancy Play. A messed up, powerful new work by Scott Turner, it tells the tale of a man named Pat who feels the evil of the world and his own desire for purity so acutely that he’s taken his wife and two teenage kids out to an isolated farmhouse, where he hopes to tend his garden and heal his wounds.

But it’s too late. Pat’s malignancy has already begun to work in him, and the seclusion of the farm only serves to weaken the social inhibitions that might once have kept it in check. Pat boards up the doors and windows. He drinks in secret. He’s abusive to his wife, who resorts to a relentless cheeriness in self-defense, and to his son, Chris, who tries hard to adore him. He prays intensely, even violently, over his daughter Amelia, who’s gone plain mad.

The tumor’s become the man. Amelia speaks of “the stranger in Dad.”

Just slightly more hopeful than its fellow Malignancy Plays–which usually end like that seminal Malignancy Film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with the disease taking over–Enemies of the Moon is also a hundred times rougher. Turner has yet to answer certain necessary questions, like where Pat and family get the food they eat, shut-in the way they are. Or what exactly transpired between Pat and Amelia that sent Amelia into near catatonic retreat. We get a highly poeticized speech about it from Amelia, but a more precise accounting is called for.

We also need a clearer sense of Pat’s wife, Isa: not so much why she puts up with all that shit from him–abuse makes the victim compliant–as what makes her blow when she finally blows. Even Pat himself could use some fleshing out.

The tone is wildly uneven, unaccountably veering into slapstick toward the end–and the language gets abstruse when it should be most direct. But for all its problems, Enemies of the Moon has got something. A great passion. A great conviction. An intense belief in itself. A marvelous willingness to take huge theatrical leaps at the risk of ending up in a heap on the floor. As a director, Turner exploits the primitive technical resources of the storefront Theatre of the Reconstruction with consistent daring and inventiveness, turning a scarcity of lighting equipment, for instance, into a fascinating play of shadows. He also works extensively, disconcertingly, and very successfully with noise: the pounding of a hammer, the tapping of knuckles, the spilling of nails, the rhythm of prayer. Turner builds a contrapuntal, percussive fugue from these elements. He makes them the heartbeat of the play.

His actors get that heartbeat going faster and faster, too, communicating a breakneck physicality reminiscent of certain well-known Chicago actors when they were a little younger. Tanya White’s Amelia is exquisite in her gone beauty. Steve Sherwin’s Chris develops a depth that grows unexpectedly out of an initial clunkiness. And though neither Mickey Oetken nor Cherise Thurman can inhabit the age and pain of the parents, they endear themselves by virtue of their fearless, intelligent effort. Thurman, especially, gives mother Isa a bite–as when Chris notices that her embroidery’s sloppy, and she retorts, “I’m tired of staying in the lines. I’m sick to death of “God Bless Our Happy Home.”‘ A line that, incidentally, wouldn’t make a bad summation of the Malignancy Play.

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