The trouble with being recognized for your accomplishments is that everyone expects the next one to be bigger and better than the last. When Claudia Allen’s The Long Awaited won the 1989 Joseph Jefferson Award for best new play, audiences looked forward to a blockbuster follow-up–a feminist indictment of the society that makes life tough for women or at least an insightful exploration of female bonding, with or without a lesbian slant. Still Waters is none of these things (nor is it the Caucasian version of The Amen Corner that the publicity led me to anticipate). Rather it is a quiet little homage to an extraordinary woman whose strength brings serenity instead of upheaval to a world fraught with turmoil.
The Reverend Myrtle, an ordained minister, is the daughter of a country preacher (the denomination is not specified, but clues point to her being Presbyterian). Since her father’s death some years earlier, she has filled the pulpit of his church–protocol for a “supply” preacher (analogous to a substitute teacher), particularly since World War II has made menfolk somewhat scarce in this part of rural Michigan and women have assumed many formerly male occupations. (As well as their pastimes–Myrtle and her mother arm wrestle at the kitchen table. “Are you Japan this time or am I?” “It’s your turn to be Italy.”) But with the end of the war the conservative congregation, led by the scripture-quoting local sheriff, votes to replace Myrtle with a preacher “who can talk man-to-man with God.” The rival candidate is patently unqualified for the post (“He can’t even pronounce the biblical names right!” complains Daisy), and a substantial portion of the flock favors keeping Myrtle as its spiritual leader. There is also a hint of revenge in Sheriff Orvis’s campaign; when they were children, he was sweet on Myrtle, who had eyes only for Jesus.
At first Myrtle accepts the decision of her peers. But as the marriage of her cousin Gertie to the unfeeling Tom grows more and more troubled, Myrtle grows impatient with the old-time religion that is no longer adequate to address postwar problems. After tragedy strikes, Myrtle realizes her duty is to follow “the call” and fight the hypocritical complacency of the church.
This is not the stuff of which blockbusters are made, and Still Waters is no sweeping liberation-theology polemic. Any indictment it may make is of the most gentle and nonpartisan kind. Gertie and Tom’s marriage is unhappy not because he talks and she listens, but because neither of them ever says what he or she really thinks. Yet they persist in their domestic charade even as it destroys the genuine love they have for one another. Their situation is contrasted with that of Myrtle’s brother, Eli, and his USO-girl bride, both of whom communicate with an openness and candor bred of wartime emancipation. When Bernadette tells Eli that she has taken a part-time job, he is indignant at first. “A husband should support his wife,” he insists. To which she cheerily replies, “All right–you pay the bills with your money, and I’ll just squander mine.” And all is harmonious again.
Even Orvis, the most obvious heavy in the story, is presented as a man misguided but by no means evil–for whom there is always the possibility of reform and redemption. Allen is savvy enough as a playwright to know that larger-than-life villains, while fun to set up and knock down, often render the opposing heroes similarly cartoonish. Out of concern for the seriousness with which we are to view Myrtle and her mission–and reverence for the real Pastor Myrtle–Allen has kept her rhetoric subdued, her sermonizing subtle, and her crises proportionate to a world we can easily identify as our own. She teaches by example rather than instruction.
In this she is ably assisted by the intelligent and perceptive direction of Sandy Shinner, who keeps a tight rein on her actors (particularly Larry Neumann Jr., a fine actor but in the past occasionally given to overplaying) in their interpretation of a script that could easily slip into sitcom sentimentality. As the Reverend Myrtle, Meg Thalken is the embodiment of wholesome Yankee virtue, though with a confident dignity that wins our admiration and respect. As the unfortunate Gertie, who could have emerged as a Beth Henley-style flutterbrain in the hands of a lesser actress, Deanna Dunagan delivers a performance steeped in compassion and sympathetic understanding. Barbara June Patterson as Daisy and Nancy Lollar as Aunt Charlotte lend their roles the capable tolerance characteristic of women who have reached the age when they can say and do as they please (this could apply to Patterson and Lollar as well, in a town where good character actors are rare). Mary Mulligan, though clearly older than the character she portrays, nonetheless makes a charming and exuberant Bernadette.
Ray Chapman is full of vigor and optimism as Bernadette’s boyish husband, Eli. John Judd has been gaining a reputation for finding the human side of overtly repugnant characters (most recently and notably in Keith Huff’s Lou Henry’s Son at the Chicago Dramatists Workshop last year). He makes the potentially sinister Tom less a brutal bully than a grown-up child. Similarly, Larry Neumann Jr. (almost unrecognizable in modern dress for a change) makes the buttoned-up Orvis a complete human being, with feelings as well as principles. Costume designer Margaret Morettini, sound designer Galen G. Ramsey, and set designer Jeff Bauer have all created a detailed and accurate environment (though Charlotte and Gertie seem at times a bit too formally dressed for country women).
What constitutes proper obedience to God, and who is most fit to guide that obedience? These are the questions asked in Still Waters. Allen has given us a play small in scope but humane in its message, skillfully crafted and sensitively executed. Sounds like enough to ask of an award-winning playwright.