Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Stranger Calls

March 08, 2011

l-r: Scott Jaeck, Alex Weisman, Eddie Bennett, Barbara Garrick, Myra Lucretia Taylor Photo: Liz Lauren/Goodman Theater 2011

I’ve got one last Chicago note worth mentioning. Between operas, I was talked into seeing one of the last performances of Thomas Bradshaw’s Mary, a world premiere play commissioned by The Goodman Theater. I was somewhat hesitant about seeing this given the veritable conniption fit that many Chicago theater critics had about the show, which had opened in February. Of course, controversy is Bradshaw’s stock-in-trade during his meteoric rise over the last several years. Earlier works such as Southern Promises and Strom Thurmond is Not a Racist in New York and elsewhere have given the playwright a reputation as a provocateur dealing with issues of race, sexuality, and violence. Bradshaw himself prefers to be thought of as a “hyper-realist” giving voice to a world of thoughts that lie just below the surface of our pleasant everyday civilization. That is not to say that Bradshaw is a naturalist, however. His plays seem unreal in nearly every way from stilted cliché dialog to blatantly contrived plot lines. The works can be funny, but are not exactly satirical per se.

Mary, a play that borders on brilliant, is true to this mold. In it, Bradshaw takes on two closely related obsessions of American culture: race and sexual orientation. The play is set in a 1983 that is likely familiar to almost no one. David, a music student, has elected to bring his college boyfriend of one year, Jonathan, home for a Christmas visit. David hasn’t come out to his parents, who live on a former plantation in Baltimore that has been in the family for centuries. Odder still is that David’s family continues to rely on the domestic services of Mary and her husband Elroy whose ancestors were the very slaves David’s ancestors used to own. When Jonathan arrives with David for the visit, he, like the audience, is astonished to hear David’s parents freely use the “N” word and express other overt racist attitudes directly to Mary and one another as the accepted norm of their lives. In fact it's a "norm" that Mary herself defends to David in a later scene. But as Jonathan’s presence begins to upset the status quo of David’s family, Mary and her husband themselves begin to hatch a plot to shoot Jonathan in the groin with a BB gun in order to prevent the two lovers from committing gay sins of the flesh.

From there is gets stranger. And admittedly, even at 90 minutes, Mary provides a huge amount of material to absorb. The mistake, it seems, many critics have made in assessing the work, however, is to assume that it is simply about the inner workings of racism and homophobia. Granted, these issues provide much of the play’s context. But Mary has so much more on its mind. Bradshaw is more broadly concerned with the way in which the most intolerable thoughts and feelings become normative behavior in our lives especially within the inner workings of families. More over, something as small as the arrival of an outsider can upset the entire system permanently with long-lasting repercussions not unlike the natural disaster caused by the flapping of a butterfly's wings. Granted this is not new terrain for the theater, but Bradshaw’s unwillingness to sentimentalize matters is both brave and inspiring. After a turn that seems to be leading to an easily digestible TV-show ending, Bradshaw sticks the audience with a troubling final soliloquy from Mary that underscores the complex reality of what makes us who we are. What's truly shocking about the play is not any of its superficial themes or language, but how brutally honest it is right to the end. This absence of sentimentality seems to be the most bothersome factor to many critics in the Chicago press. Mary is not a play that reassures us that our better nature is going to allow us all to get along. In Mary's world, unity is something we're going to have to work for and work for a lot harder than we have so far.


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