Talisman Theatre

There’s no denying that the Woodson family is a mite strange, but as long as they’re happy, what the hell. If Grandpa Yoman wants to tell stories of wrestling with the giant sturgeon he calls the “silver dragon,” what does it matter that the pond dried up long ago? If Isbel says she’s pregnant and the baby is due soon, why should her hysterectomy contradict her? And if the mentally handicapped Boogie wants to deliver “lectures” and the crippled Sissy wants to dance ballet, what of it? Jugger Woodson, who spends his time sitting under the huge tree that has sprung up mysteriously on the family’s front porch, doesn’t mind. Not even that his mother dresses like an 1880s dance-hall hostess because her husband, who will be home presently, likes her to dress that way. Whose business is it to remind these cheerful, serene people that the Woodson paterfamilias was killed in a mine explosion years earlier?

Carney, the eldest son and a famous television preacher, decides to make it his business after a traveling journalist pays a visit to his family and produces a tabloid news story, complete with photographs, about his crazy family. In an exorcism that terrifies even Dulcey, his gentle wife, he casts out their optimistic fantasies, calling them “lies of Satan,” and brings his kinsmen back to a painful, mean-spirited reality, making them all so unhappy that even the tree weeps salt tears for them. Clearly, a miracle is needed to heal these unfortunate souls and set Carney back on the right path. But miracles are bought only through sacrifice, and Jugger knows this.

Damned if he doesn’t deliver a miracle. The legend of the Tree of Life is to be found in the lore of almost every culture in the world, an allegory for the spirit that transcends the misery of earthly existence and offers hope of a better world to come. The fundamentalist Carney rejects this mysticism, claiming, “We must define our purpose on this earth and accept our pain as Christ embraced His passion on the cross.” Boogie refutes this argument, declaring Christ did not die to teach us to worship a reality rife with cruelty and injustice: “He died as He lived–to deny the cross of your “reality’ which could not kill him. He died to defy your reason and defeat death itself.” This echoes the words uttered by the intuitive Dulcey: “The kind of love your daddy had can’t die. It’s too strong, and it wants so much to reach out to us that it finds a way, even after death.” In the face of the miraculous evidence wrought by this enduring love, even Carney, who has spent his life denying love, cannot prevent his eyes from being opened.

The key to making any of this work is that we must believe in the magic that elevates us above the mundane consciousness we call reality. Ron Mark, one of Chicago’s most underrated playwrights, has provided the lyrical language necessary to convey an atmosphere in which extraordinary things happen. Jugger recounts the first manifestation of their father’s resurrection: “The tree had made a blossom–one perfect white blossom that opened its little white fingers to Mama, and way down deep inside its fingers was this one raindrop with a thousand colors coming out of it like a diamond dancing in the sun–only there wasn’t any sun. Mama put out her hand, like she was at the altar waiting for the ring, and that white flower bent down to kiss her hand. Then all the petals came off, floated down to her feet like snow, and that little diamond drop rolled out into the middle of her palm. You know Daddy always wanted to buy Mama a ring, but she wouldn’t let him.” Even Carney’s scorn for this primitive pantheism takes the form of metaphor: “This whole world’s nothing but one big pair of steel jaws chewing up all you soft people, spitting out what’s left into sewers, slums, the coal mines, and dirty little rooms that smell. There’s no big hand coming out of the clouds to pull you out of them teeth.” To which the suddenly articulate Boogie replies, “To embrace your “truth’ is to value the common man as worthless and his soul as so much spiritual excrement. . . . But that light, that searing epiphany, exploding into a billion wheeling candles–see that singular, silent truth that kissed His dying breath with ultimate joy.”

In the mouths of lesser speakers, such euphuism could easily become ludicrous, but the Talisman company works diligently to make these incantations natural. Particularly fine performances are to be had from John Norris as the enigmatic Jugger, Robert A. Mullen as the misanthropic Carney, and Liane LeMaster as the sensual Dulcey. In the small space–only 360 square feet–designer Michael Johannsen has created a mischievous, enchanted Arthur Rackham universe, the focal point of which is one magnificent tree, fragile enough for light to shine through but strong enough to climb to heaven–a metaphor for the entire play. Director Mark Hardiman moves his cast around the minuscule stage with the skill of a master chess player and keeps the timing sensitive and keen.

Though most of Ron Mark’s imagery is drawn from Christian mythology, Jugger’s Rain is a story with dimensions beyond any specific creed or sect. A fable, a parable, a theological treatise, and a folktale all at the same time, Jugger’s Rain is a message that there are things in earth and heaven beyond our philosophy.

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