Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2007
No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
- John Donne, Meditation XVII
As I drove home from the theatre and pondered what I would write about the Oldcastle production of Lee Blessingís intriguing A Body of Water this quotation floated to the surface of my brain. Actually, I could not remember all of it, but I knew that my husband would, and indeed he recited all of Donneís Meditation XVII to me promptly upon my request.
Notice how much memory plays a role in the preceding paragraph. Not only was I able to arise in the morning knowing who I was, where I was, and what I was expected to do that day, but I was able to draw upon a fifty year stash of literary and cultural references to make sense of what I had just seen. I remembered how to get to the theatre and back. I remembered who my husband was and what he knew that I didnít.
I am not an island but a mere fragment of the continent that is life on earth. What links me to the mainland is the thread of memory Ė things learned and things experienced.
In A Body of Water a man and a woman wake up one morning next to each other in bed in a beautiful house high on a hill entirely surrounded by water. They have no idea who they are or who the other person is, where they are, or how they got there. Although they are middle-aged and apparently educated, affluent, and in good health, they have no idea what has happened in their lives previous to that morning. They are on an island and they are each an island. They have no ties to anything or anyone.
A younger woman arrives. She says that her name is Wren (Carey Van Driest). She tells the man that his name is Moss (Bill Tatum) and the woman that her name is Avis (Paula Mann). Over the course of five scenes, which Blessing claims occur over three days, although it is not clear if the scenes are played in chronological order, Wren tells Moss and Avis several different versions of who they are, where they are, why they are there, and what the future holds for them. A crime may or may not have been committed. She claims to be their daughter more often than she denies it. Moss and Avis claim to believe her stories more than they deny it, but it would be impossible for all her versions of reality to be true simultaneously.
Blessing insists that this is NOT a play about Alzheimerís Disease or any other medical form of dementia or amnesia, and yet it is hard not to ponder those conditions while watching it. We all fear dementia, and yet we are all intrigued by what such a condition feels like from the inside. Is this it? Do Avis and Moss really wake up every single morning and have to learn everything all over again? If Wren is really their daughter, then she is saintly in her devotion to her addled parents and yet horrific in the liberties she takes with her ability to control and manipulate their world from day to day, minute to minute.
A Body of Water offers questions, not answers. Neither the actors, the director, nor the audience knows anymore than what Blessing has written, and if he knows anymore than that heís not telling. The playwright claims that he has rewritten this play at least ten times since its world premiere at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis in 2005, and that he finally has an ending that he likes. Oldcastle is the first theatre to produce this version of A Body of Water which is the version that will be published shortly, and Blessing claims never to do re-writes of a script after it has been published.
Oldcastle, which had a great success with Blessingís Chesapeake two years ago, has done an absolutely top notch job with A Body of Water. I cannot imagine a more beautiful and perfect set, lighting design, and costumes than Ken Mooney has provided. They immediately set the mood, creating a lovely but entirely antiseptic island world for Blessingís existential games to be played on. When the lights came up and the background music started I realized that they were exactly what I had been waiting for, they complimented the set so perfectly.
Director Eric Peterson has assembled an excellent cast. Tatum and Mann play their roles with dignity, allowing us to believe that they could indeed be/have been a judge and a medical administrator slash photographer. Their characters are often terrified, but, in grand tradition of the upper class WASP, they put on a brave and pleasant front no matter what the challenges they face.
While Blessing has written Tatum and Mannís roles fairly consistently, Van Driestís Wren has a distinctly different character, mood, and motivation in each. She plays each with a cold aplomb that make it easy to believe she is, or isnít, whatever Wren is claiming to be at the moment.
Since the Guthrie, A Body of Water has been produced at the Old Globe in San Diego, Orlando Theatre Project in Orlando, FL, and Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, MD. It won the American Theatre Critics Association's Steinberg Award for best new play of 2006 produced outside of New York. A New York premiere is slated for September 2008 at Primary Stages.
Blessing, 58, heads the graduate playwriting program at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. He currently has new projects in the works at the Denver Theatre Center, the Cleveland Playhouse, and at InterArts in Philadelphia. The Guthrie will present a reading of a new Blessing play next spring.
Whenever I hear that a play by Blessing is being staged locally, I want to go and see it. My great regret is that I have not been more successful in the past, but I hereby make a very late New Yearís Resolution to do better in the future. I find that I either love his work or am driven slightly crazy by it, but I am never, ever bored. Blessing writes in a clear, accessible voice, even when, as he is here, he is dealing with decidedly surreal situations and complex subjects. Of the four Blessing plays that I have seen and reviewed so far, I adored Eleemosynary, was impressed by Two Rooms, and was driven crazy by Black Sheep and, to a lesser extent, by this production of A Body of Water.
But there is nothing wrong with being driven crazy. Blessingís work makes me think. Peterson has said in pre-production interviews that A Body of Water is a show people want to talk about, and the company has scheduled several talk-back sessions after the performances, notably a chance to discuss the play with the playwright after the 2 pm matinee on Saturday, October 6. Even if you donít attend that particular performance, you are welcome to come to the theatre after the October 6 matinee to hear what Blessing has to say! The show runs an hour and 20 minutes without an intermission, so showing up at 3:15-ish and waiting for the show to let out ought to ensure you a seat for the talk-back.
Mo theatre company is an island, entire of itself. This is the caliber of production and material that true devotees of the theatre long for. In my last review, of Almost, Maine at the Theater Barn, I lamented the inexplicable popularity of shallow and unsatisfying playwriting. That Blessingís well-crafted and thought-provoking work has been and continues to be regularly produced in this area, and often by major companies, bodes well for the future health of our regional theatre environment.
A Body of Water produced by the Oldcastle Theatre Company, runs through October 7 at the Bennington Center for the Arts at the intersection of VT Rt. 9 and Gypsy Lane. The show runs an hour and twenty minutes with NO intermission. Pensive older teens will enjoy the big life questions this play raises, but this is definitely NOT a show for young children. Call the Oldcastle box office at 802-447-0564 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007