During the past several weeks I’ve been returning to the theater, one of my first loves, in an effort to restore my life after my wife’s valiant but fruitless sixteen-year struggle with breast cancer.
I began in May by taking my youngest grandson to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The brilliant staging of the production transports you into the mind of an autistic teenager.
The Father, Frank Langella’s portrayal of a man stricken with dementia, tears at the heart—for which he earned the Tony for acting. And he does it night after night after night and twice on matinee days.
Both these plays enliven the old Greek origins of the word theater: to observe a thing or person, especially a remarkable or impressive one. Thereby, Aristotle taught, vicariously releasing and relieving your own strong or repressed emotions.
Then, later last month, I went to see The Humans, winner of four Tony awards. When you pay $255 for a single orchestra seat, you expect more than a TV sitcom. I know I stand alone in this, but The Humans is mediocre.
I've experienced a lot of Broadway since my Aunt Sally took me to the original My Fair Lady when I was nine years old. I also had the good fortune of working the Drama Desk of the New York Daily News back in the days when it was a real newspaper.
The Humans, at 95 minutes, is 90 minutes of fluffy banter centered on a Thanksgiving family gathering (how trite can a writer be?) and five minutes of a preposterous plot turn (a grandfather who works as a janitor at a private school confesses that he has been fired for having an affair with one of the teachers. Huh?). Rather than intelligent dialog to resolve all this, we suffer through staging devices: lights on, lights off, noises off, lights on, blah-blah-blah. None of the characters is as defined as Liza Doolittle or Professor Higgins, whom I can still picture in my mind after all these years. Twenty-four hours after enduring The Humans, I could not remember the names of its main characters.
Last week, however, my faith was restored. I dashed down to New York City to catch a performance of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible before the limited run ends tomorrow.
This classic dramatizes the 1692 Salem witch trials, and was first staged in 1953, when the McCarthy hearings raised fear among the American populace that a Communist lurked under every bed. But the play raised in my mind a question that goes to the heart of the human journey—the value of a life.
The protagonist and his wife, both facing the gallows because they have been wrongly accused and condemned, agonize over a life or death decision: continue to deny the accusations and be hanged, or confess to the accusations and live.
The couple—she pregnant with their fourth child—agree that God’s greatest gift is life, and he lovingly touches her belly, where their baby is taking form. She says words to the effect that God would rather he make a false confession than deny a life—a “Sophie’s choice” for an honest man who values his integrity above all.
I won’t give away his decision. But ponder what your decision would be.
This is what theater is all about—or should be. An intense experience of the exceptional that challenges and cleanses your thinking like metal forged in a fire. And out of it comes something new in you.