Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
… And Now, The Critic Returns to the Dilemma…
“The dilemma of the critic has always been that if he knows enough to speak with authority, he knows too much to speak with detachment.” ~ “A Qualified Farewell”, published in The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler (1976)
I’m back. Some may have noticed the metaphorical silence here for the past month or so. I noticed it too, as part of a larger learning experience. It took a while to return, and to put the journey of the past month into words.
I have no idea how many of you have lost a parent, much less both. I am now in that category, and I’ve learned something about myself with each loss. For starters, I have learned to reevaluate what I do and how I live, to discover how much of what this eldest child and general “good daughter” has chosen to do and be because my parents wished it for me, and what within my life is something I do because it feeds me. With my father’s death in 1999, the exploration was huge, leading to a readjustment of my work life, the nurture of my creative life, and the total upheaval and reimagining of my personal life. It was, in the long run anyway, all for the good.
In November, as I wrote then, I lost my mother – the primary preliminary force in my theatrical development. She it was who sat me down at the age of 7 to watch the Max Reinhardt film of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” who had me watching “A Comedy of Errors” at 9, and my first “Hamlet” shortly after (it was Christopher Plummer, by the way). She and my grandmother took me to the children’s shows on Saturdays at the Pasadena Playhouse, in the days when it was still an acting school. There I chatted with the performers afterward, and learned that someone could fall down the stairs – with practice – without getting hurt, and saw Long John Silver getting out of his peg leg: the magic of theater from the backstage side, if you will.
I would not have studied theater, worked in summer stock companies, etc., or be writing this blog if it was not for my mother, who shared with me her passion for and fascination with the craft. Indeed, my first job was working for the Pasadena Recreation Department Costume Division, in a wonderland of generations of costumes in a remarkable old schoolhouse. (Unfortunately, while I was away at college, that old schoolhouse burned to the ground, and the costume collection dating back to the 1920s went with it. It is now Jefferson Park.)
Why do I bring this up? Because, much to my surprise, for the first month and a half after my mother’s timely and peaceful death, I found it excruciatingly difficult to write about the theater she had taught me to love. Initially I supposed it was a part of that reexamination of life, but now I have come to understand that this was more likely symptomatic of being attacked by what I now call the “grief ninjas”: those moments which strike without warning and drag one back into a darker space. The holidays exacerbated the problem, as did a remarkable production I saw but simply could not discuss on these pages. I now believe it is time to pull up my socks, mention the show, and move on, at least in the arena of this blog and my life as a critic.
The production, at the Mark Taper Forum, was John Robin Baitz’s award-winning “Other Desert Cities.” I should have known there would be a problem, when I saw Takeshi Kata’s set. It was almost exactly a copy of my mother’s longtime friend’s Palm Springs living room. The backdrop, though probably reminiscent of that famed town, evoked for me my favorite place of peace in the desert: Death Valley. The play itself wound around a comfortable and conservative couple whose daughter, in deep anger, had written a scathing memoir about her life growing up, and what she felt was her parents’ betrayal. What she did not, and could not know was the truth behind the stories which so embittered her, which she had actually seen only from the sidelines. That truth was far richer, and much more loving, than her imagined scenario.
I think this is always a danger. One thing I have learned about my parents (particularly my father), once they were no longer around to embody my own assumptions, was how many segments of their lives I either knew nothing about or construed differently from their own reality.
And here comes the problem. The actors in the Taper production (JoBeth Williams, Robert Foxworth, Robin Weigert, Michael Weston and Jeannie Berlin) were so good, their characters so well crafted, and the story so compelling that I kept thinking about my own family and the correlation of my story to theirs in general theme, though the specifics are widely different. Essentially, it seemed to hit too close to the emotional bone. I wanted to tell everyone to go see it, as it was splendid, but at the same time I felt as if putting my enthusiasm into words was opening a vein.
So… writer’s block.
I am obviously past that now, and though I can see overarching themes from that fine play which touch me, distance has given me enough perspective to realize that most of what was creating correlations to my own life was, well, a voice inside my own head. I regret being unable to write a review when it mattered (the show closed on January 6), but am grateful to have made it through my own difficult wrestlings in the process.
Grief is an odd thing at times. It can lead to doubt and guilt and frustration. It can make a person like me, noted for strength and sense, become weak and illogical. I don’t cry in public, as a rule, but now I do at the oddest times. The grief ninjas can really twist you, and they certainly have me. Still, it all gets better with time and reflection.
So, I’m back. I am past the first stages of grieving a remarkable, if quirky woman. I am now the senior member of my family, and an orphan. All of that shall, I am sure, inform the work I do from here on. Part of that work will be to get back to the critiquing of the theater, as I have finally come to terms with the fact that this is something I do because I must, for me. I hope you will be willing to come along for the ride.
Thanks for waiting up for me. I’m home.