Reflections and Illusions in Wallace Shawn

Last night, I spent three hours ranting about Henry Kissinger. Well, not “ranting” exactly… Praising. Defending. Lionizing. At any rate, it was three hours of talking about Kissinger.

Week two of rehearsals for Wallace Shawn’s brutal and brilliant Aunt Dan and Lemon.

We have a remarkable group of people in the room for this process: Bridget O’Leary, director of last year’s reading of A Brief History of the Soviet Union, returns to direct a full production for us; Whistler Artistic Associates Melissa Barker (Bacchae, Family Stories), Scott Sweatt (In On It, The Europeans) and Mac Young (Ovid, The Europeans), Alex Simoes (In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe) and Jen O’Connor (pretty much all of our shows) return to our stage along with Whistler newcomer Melissa Baroni; Emily Woods Hogue (One Flea Spare, The Europeans) and PJ Strachman (pretty much all of seasons 4-6) create the physical world of the play, and Vawnya Nichols (Family Stories, The Europeans) keeps it all organized and sane.

Then Meron Langsner is back with more of his beautiful violence (is that the right way to phrase that?), Molly Haas Hooven returns as Dramaturg and Danny Bryck is coaching on dialects. And then there’s me – except this time I’m joining the actors onstage again, for the first time since season 3’s A Hard Heart.

It’s a humbling group to be a part of – smart, savvy and with a great deal of heart. And we need all of that to tackle this play. Because it’s a doozy. And I know – if you are reading this blog, you are a part of Whistler’s family and therefor used to the fact that we never give you an easy and light evening out. But this one… this one is something else.

I’ve been a fan of Wallace Shawn’s for a long time – I think I first read Aunt Dan and Lemon in college, and it opened up space in my brain in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible. Then I found The Designated Mourner and The Fever and I was hooked.

But as much as I loved Aunt Dan and Lemon, it also seemed almost impossible to stage. It’s just such a provocative play – it stares me down and makes me question some of the fundamental ways I think about the world. I can’t imagine that we won’t have a few audience members every night who are very angry with us – the play hones in with delicate accuracy on some of the hypocrisies in which we indulge to make our lives bearable – and I think that, even for our audiences who value our work for the very reason that it asks them to work as part of the process, this will be a particularly challenging evening.

So, when we approached Bridget about directing for us this year and we started trading scripts back and forth, this was one that I sent her rather tentatively, because while I loved it, I also kind of feared it. Thank goodness she didn’t, because it is such an exciting project to be a part of.

For me, the most refreshing part of rehearsals, besides the sheer joy of acting again (and with Jen O’Connor, no less!), is that the play fairly leaps off the page and takes on a muscular life on the stage. I think I had looked in terror at the huge blocks of high-lighted text in my script and thought “No one will want to sit through that!” – but Shawn’s dialog is so beautifully crafted and flows so gorgeously that you don’t even notice how long some of these characters talk. You just sit back and follow the arguments and attacks and wince when a particularly sharp blow lands.

A little about the play:

Jen plays Lemon, a sickly woman in her twenties in the 1980s, who lives mainly in her memories – more specifically in her memories of the summer she was 11 and her parents’ captivating friend Danielle (Aunt Dan…me) came to stay. As Lemon speaks with the audience about those memories, they erupt onto the stage around her, filling her apartment. But she remembers not only what happened to her or what she did, but stories that were told to her.

But more than that, the play is an examination of how a moral compass can go astray. Slowly, insidiously, but definitely astray. Dan is force of nature – she erupts into the shy and withdrawn Lemon’s life with the subtlety of a tidal wave. And over the course of a summer, she shares with Lemon not only her political leanings (hence the 3 hours of Kissinger last night) but also stories from her somewhat seedy-yet-glamorous life. The play then shows us what Lemon learns from these stories and lessons. And what she learns is startling…

In his essay “Why I Call Myself a Socialist“, Wallace Shawn states:

…it’s delightfully easy to see through illusions held by people far away or by members of one’s own group a century ago or a decade ago or a year ago. But this doesn’t seem to help us to see through the illusions which, at any given moment, happen to be shared by the people who surround us, our friends, our family, the people we trust.

So he gives us a double mirror – Lemon in the 80s is reflected to us in both the political furor surrounding the war in Vietnam in the late 60s, but also reflected in the Second World War, a subject she follows with an almost fanatical interest. And in our time of global unrest – where wars and conflicts seem to be erupting at a dizzying speed, we start to realize that while we are watching Lemon’s reflections through time, she herself is a reflection of us as well.

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