Lewis & Sipes

at Synergy Center

In Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 play The Visit, an extremely rich woman first plunges her hometown into poverty, then returns to offer the townspeople money–in exchange for the life of the man who done her wrong. Israel Horovitz’s The Widow’s Blind Date presents a distinctively American twist on the same story: it’s less a political metaphor of money’s corrupting influence than an exploration of the circumstances that can undercut centuries of civilization (a theme also explored this season in John Bishop’s Borderline). And unlike Durrenmatt’s protagonists, Horovitz’s Margy is no omnipotent instrument of draconian justice, nor are his Archie and George mere sadistic bullies reveling in atrocities committed long ago.

Gang rape is one of the ugliest of crimes: not as certainly fatal as, say, an arson fire in a day-care center or a fragmentation bomb in a sports arena, but certainly one of the most shameful and humiliating acts, not only to the victim but to the perpetrators and witnesses as well. It’s impossible for any participant, active or passive, to think himself–or herself, for the role of rapist is assigned not on the basis of gender but of power–a moral, rational, compassionate human being. The sociologists may talk of pack-animal hunting instincts and bonding rituals, but there can be no comparison between five 80-pound wolves running down a 900-pound caribou and seven members of the species Homo sapiens brutalizing a lone member of their own kind. For such a thing to occur, the attackers must be convinced that the object of their abuse is larger and stronger, or subhumanly and intrinsically evil, and that they themselves are the more vulnerable. Thus each “team” member can think of himself or herself as a David going up against a Goliath, a Judith against a Holofernes, though the “giant” may be far smaller and weaker than any one of its attackers.

Like a lynching, a gang rape requires a leader. George Ferguson was once such a leader. Though the neighborhood and schools of Wakefield, Massachusetts, in The Widow’s Blind Date seem insular enough to render virtually any kind of sexual overture an act of incest, on the eve of their high school graduation, George led an assault on Margy–cheerleader, salutatorian, sister of the class president–an assault that included the athletes for whom she had cheered, her steady boyfriend, and even her own brother. Twenty-five years later, four of the malefactors have died under mysterious circumstances, and fifth is dying of some unnamed disease. The last two, George and Archie, are working in Archie’s father’s waste-paper plant, baling old newspapers for their living and fondly recalling their days of adolescent glory, more real to them than the years that followed. (George and Archie can barely recognize their old classmates by any but schoolroom sobriquets.) Into the fairly contented, if not comfortable, lives of these two buddies returns Margy, now a successful literary critic at Columbia University, to confront them with their long-forgotten offense.

Gang rape is a subject that has been discussed at great (and sadly overdue) length in recent years, with the usual amount of finger pointing and epithet slinging that accompanies any controversy in which no hands are completely clean. Given the opportunity for more of the same, however, Horovitz offers a remarkably unprejudiced and insightful analysis of the problem. Margy demands of the men: “Why’d you pick me? Did I look like an easy lay? Seventeen years old, five foot, four inches tall, and you hit me! You know what I was thinking while you were doing it to me? That I was getting run over by a bus!” Archie, her onetime boyfriend, is ashamed–“Ever since second grade, Margy, you were the only one. The only reason I did it was because I didn’t think you’d have me any other way.” But George is unrepentant, his rage and anger mounting as he vomits up his self-loathing (he says he’s “37, going on 38, years old and still getting paid the minimum wage”). His self-loathing made and continues to make Margy the symbol of all that he is not and will never be, a symbol that must be toppled: “You forget who you are. You ain’t no princess, Margaret. This ain’t no hoity-toity Worcester or New York.” He shouts in an even greater frenzy, “You let me look down your blouse in second grade! . . . You loved it! You came up smiling and begging for more! You remember who went first? Me! That’s right–Georgie Ferguson. I was first in line!”

Harsh words, but painfully, repulsively, nauseatingly human words. We have all fantasized about bringing the mighty to their knees, we have all bullied the weak out of frustration at our own helplessness before the strong–beginning with hitting our little brothers or sisters because we were angry with our parents. “Nobody planned it. It just happened,” protests Archie, and that his plea is probably true makes the fact of the rape no less abhorrent. But anyone who has ever faced a mob knows that the only way to disperse it is to name names, to make each member aware of his individual responsibility. Margy names names, exposing the two-man mob for what each is alone; and they see their crime better, as we see our own actions in a clearer light.

The Widow’s Blind Date seems highly overwritten–possibly because the script’s still in the developmental stage (Lewis & Sipes’s production, in association with Inn Town Players, marks its midwestern premiere). Or perhaps Horovitz is more adept at the one-act play, the form of most of his better-known works. Director Lizabeth Sipes was apparently reluctant to cut anything here, though characters frequently say the same thing six or seven times. Two or three times would have accomplished the same purpose.

This leaves us with a script that, however flawed by excessive length, is nonetheless a staggering tour de force for the actors playing it. The cast are quite up to the task, carrying out their duties with ease and agility, sustaining a taut suspense and our anticipation of violence. Harold McCay’s set assists in this, with its bales and stacks of tattered newspaper evoking a disorder made all the more theatening by the ominous presence of the baling machine. Terry “Turk” Muller as Archie and Robert Maffia as George, the criminals as petty as their crime is heinous, convey perfectly the symbiotic solidarity of two losers sharing the denial of their pointless lives (and hinting at the almost erotic expression characteristic of even the most heterosexual of such partnerships). Bethany Evans, with her flinty face and bantamweight aggressiveness, makes Margy more than a match for both of them put together.

One likes to think that the “battle of the sexes” is over and done with. But just as there are lone soldiers lost in the wilderness still fighting old wars, so there will be those who label Archie and George diabolical monsters or Margy a manipulative castrater. It’s always easier to lay the blame at some other door than our own. But as sick as it may make us to recall these moments of bestiality, Horovitz’s play serves to remind us that only through facing them and making restitution can we truly call ourselves whole and human.