The Sacrament of the Arts: Theatre at its Best

If ever there were a perfect illustration of the Sacrament of the Arts it would be  found up in White River Junction, Vermont where Northern Stage’s recent production of the play Oslo blew the audience away.   That is, blew them away by gathering them in.  Let me explain.

This award-winning play by J.T. Rogers tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats who, on their own, decided to try to make peace in the Middle East.    It was the 1990s — Israel and the PLO were at war, civilian deaths were mounting and the official government peace talks were dead in the water.  Secret, back-channel talks began in Oslo, and against all odds, after nearly insurmountable difficulties, the Norwegians did it:  by the end of the play the leaders of Israel and the PLO had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  How did they do it? Through a humanist approach.  Up to this time, some of the Palestinians had never even met an Israeli. The Norwegians insisted that there be time each day to eat together, relax together, to call each other by their first names—in short, to get to know each other as real people.    They met at the human level and the business of negotiation was conducted in a separate room.  Once the human connections had been forged, things began to change in their deliberations. There was more trust, more willingness to compromise, more empathy.   The final result was a victory for Humanism

And then the Dark Side had its innings.  Rabin, the leader of Israel was accused by conservatives of selling out.  The Bible, they said, gave all the land to the Jews. Period.  Rabin was assassinated.  Everything fell apart.  So here we are, still in a never-ending cycle of death that feeds all the war and unrest in that region: Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—so much hate directed at Israel and the United States, and when I ask my students why they hate us, they have no clue or come up with something as off-the-mark as George Bush’s comment that they resent our freedom.

Let’s come back to the play.  The great thing about theatre is that by its very nature it reminds us of our humanity. All these people come together—the cast, the writer, the tech crew, the audience—and they bond for a couple of hours. The audience is drawn into the lives and passions of the characters on stage. They see the world through their eyes, they share their joys, they sympathize, they suffer with them in their defeats.  It wouldn’t be the same if they were alone in a room streaming a film on Netflix, or even if they were in a crowded movie theatre, though that can come close.  No, it’s the fact that the spectator is there, shoulder to shoulder with others, taking in the drama together and being transformed by it.

At the end of Oslo, after it all goes to hell, the Norwegian protagonist turns  directly to the audience and says “My friends, if we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further  can we yet go? There on the horizon, The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?”  and each night of the run someone answered “Yes.”  It gives you chills.

One final note:  this kind of theatre experience doesn’t happen by accident.   It takes a certain kind of person at the top to create the atmosphere that can bring out the best in everyone. Creativity is strangled under dictators and thrives in a climate of warmth and support.  Northern Stage is blessed to have Carol Dunne as Artistic Director, Eric Bunge as Managing Director, and for Oslo, Peter Hackett as director.   It’s a happy place to work.

Advertisements

“Our Town” at Northern Stage.

I’d never seen Our Town before. I’d read it of course.   Thornton Wilder’s best-known play has been a staple in high school English classes ever since its debut back in 1938, and for good reason. But reading it is nothing, seeing it is everything. There’s no scenery and not much in the way of costumes. It’s not that kind of play. But in the third act, watch out. When it’s done right, you’ll be thinking about what you saw for weeks, or maybe even a lifetime.

And it was done right at Northern Stage in White River Jct., Vt. in a run that just ended on Saturday. Carol Dunne, the artistic director, knows how to cast, and knows how to get the best performances from her actors. There wasn’t a weak part in the ensemble, even among the children who populate Grovers Corners. John Hutton as the stage manager was terrific, with a voice any performer would envy, and a presence that was at once commanding, but serene in his omniscience. Sutton Crawford in the role of Emily had the audience in the palm of her hand with exactly the right combination of innocence and maturity. We loved Emily from the beginning and when she’s up in her room, gazing at the moon—what an extraordinarily beautiful thing to witness!

But the image that haunts us, that slices through us right to the depths of our being, is the end of Act III, with those dead souls in the graveyard, waiting, waiting… They know what we don’t. They stare straight ahead, speaking laconically, without moving in the dim light. They are in touch with the stars, with eternity, with the Divine, while the grieving husband collapses sobbing on the grave of his wife. No words can describe what the stage brings to a scene like that. It’s the power of live theatre, the Sacrament of the Arts, and Wilder understood it better than most.

Our Town may be the best American play ever written.   It’ll be around forever. Let’s hope Northern Stage in its brand-new theatre will be, too.  If you’re in New England, check them out!