Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009

On January 5, 2010, “my” soap opera, ABC’s All My Children, will celebrate 40 years on the air. And it is a fairly young soap, Guiding Light debuted on radio in 1937. Two members of the cast will celebrate their 40th anniversary on the show at the same time – Ray MacDonnell, who plays the sane and heroic Dr. Joe Martin, and Susan Lucci, who, at the age of 62, still plays sex-kitten and uber-vixen, Erica Kane.

It is Lucci and her ilk (Erica Slezak, Kim Zimmer, Robin Strasser, Susan Flannery) that director Justin Waldman and playwright Noah Haidle are lampooning in Haidle’s new play What is the Cause of Thunder? currently up on the WTF’s Nikos Stage.

What is the Cause of Thunder? is the name of the soap on which Ada (Wendie Malick) has been playing matriarch Emily Posten for 27 years, and thunder seems to play a significant spiritual role. WTCT (all soaps go by their initials) is a VERY religious soap, a rarity in the real world where the programs wish to appeal to all and offend none. Here Ada’s Emily regularly prays to and speaks about God.

Making fun of soap operas is like shooting fish in a barrel, they are just about as badly written and mind-bendingly dumb as Haidle portrays them (he confesses to a now-conquered addiction to Days of Our Lives). Mere hours before I went to see What is the Cause of Thunder? I was watching Ryan and Annie, two annoying and completely unbelievable characters, argue (I am not kidding) about whose brother had been crazier and therefore who had been the most righteous in committing fratricide. So far Annie’s brother, Richie, has stayed dead; while Ryan’s brother, Jonathan returned from the dead, entered into a chaste marriage with an angelic autistic teenager he had once tried to kill, divorced her, got engaged to her slutty identical but not autistic half-sister, and then “went to Europe” which is the place soap characters go when the writers can’t think of what to have them do next. In both cases the actors have moved on to much more interesting roles on other soaps.

But Haidle has interwoven the insanity that is daytime drama with the drama that is Ada’s insanity. The poor thing cannot distinguish real life from reel life. She cannot tell her real, and very pregnant, daughter Ophelia (Betty Gilpin, who also plays every other character in the play), from her on-screen twins, the saintly Harper, who keeps slipping in and out of a coma, and the hellion Bathsheba, who has just been released from prison for impersonating an oral surgeon.

What is the Cause of Thunder? is entertaining enough, but it is not a great play. At ninety minutes, it is too long. Economic realities, which Haidle speaks of at length in the program, forced the him to find ways to contract the cast to just two women, but it feels just that, forced. I think Haidle needs to go back to this work, cut some of what he has, and add a third, male, actor, who could play multiple roles as Gilpin does here. I understand that Ada and Ophelia have suffered nothing but disappointment at the hands of men, but we need to see some of the SOBs to really get the point.

But if you have to have just two women on the stage, Malick and Gilpin are the two you want. If you were going to cast a Susan Lucci-esque soap opera diva can you think of anyone better than Wendie Malick? She does diva extremely well. Yes, it may be an easy and an expected role for her, but she’s good at it and its only for two weeks in the summer. She has plenty of opportunities to explore more challenging roles.

On the other hand What is the Cause of Thunder? is a real showcase for Gilpin’s versatility and talents. Her father, actor Jack Gilpin, who I had seen in Conor MacPherson’s one-hander St. Nicholas at the Dorset Theatre Festival a few weeks earlier, sat directly in front of me and was justifiably pleased by and proud of what he saw. Gilpin gives a touching and often hilarious performance. Her Ophelia (there is much discussion over why Ada ever chose that name) is a hopeless mess, but she loves and supports her mother, she loves her unborn daughter, and she even loves the child’s absent father, Jay Eddie, to the point that she too crosses the line between reality and fantasy, an ominous sign that she is doomed to repeat her own life story with her daughter.

In real life, soap actors are rarely fooled into believing that they are their characters or that anything they present on camera is real. While Erica Kane has been married and divorced ten times, not to mention the many affairs and broken engagements in between, Susan Lucci and her one and only husband just celebrated their fortieth wedding anniversary this year.

If Haidle was instructed to keep the cast of this play small in order to cut costs, he ought to have a serious talk with The Powers That Be at the WTF about how that giant set got paid for. Surely a slightly smaller set would have allowed for that third, male actor that I envision. Set designer Alexander Dodge has constructed a whole room box representing the living room of the apartment which Ada and Ophelia share, which rolls up and down stage with alacrity, aided once again by a herd of WTF apprentices and interns, all of whom paid good money for the thrill of rolling things around the Nikos stage while wearing headsets.

When the apartment set is upstage, other scenes appear, mostly sets from WTCT, but there is also a scene in heaven where Ada meets her unborn (and at that point unnamed) granddaughter. As we all know, people walk around on clouds all day in the afterlife, and so the floor of the stage is filled with stage fog, which cascades off of the lip of the stage into the faces of the audience members unfortunate enough to be seated in the first two rows who could be observed coughing and fanning the fumes away with their programs. Stage fog is not harmful when inhaled, but I have it on good authority from friends with asthma and other breathing disorders that it does irritate their conditions. If you suffer in this way, make sure you sit towards the back of the theatre.

Haidle has an interesting writing style, heavily influenced here by the Elizabethan and the King James biblical. He seems to be trying to make some interesting points about life and death and God. In the first, and funniest, scene, Gilpin, playing a totally demented soap opera nun, announces that God is dead. He expired, she announces in a great bitch-slap of thunder, after asking “What did I do?” Everyone agrees he could have done a little better creating the world – a little less war and suffering would have been nice. And death…no one likes this dying business.

Ada remarks again and again that no one dies on a soap opera, which is not true. Characters played by people who die in real life do die and stay dead on soaps. It is the people who die soap opera deaths who come back to life again with alarming regularity. Or they come back as ghosts. That’s always popular. Just the other day on AMC Stuart’s ghost appeared to Kendall to assure her that she hadn’t killed him. It is handy that the actor who plays Stuart also plays his not-dead twin brother Adam, so he’s still on contract with the show.

Ada’s Emily has already been killed off five or six times and returned from the dead. And during the course of the play she is killed once again, this time by a gun shot fired by her not-dead son who she believed she buried alive shortly after he was born. It really wouldn’t have mattered if she made sure he was dead before she buried him. On my soap when Jesse died his wife, Dr. Angela Hubbard, had her head on his chest, and he still reappeared 20 years later. If a doctor can’t tell when her husband is dead there is really no hope.

It is this most recent on-screen death, accompanied by a note from the producers telling Ada she is too old and they don’t want her anymore, that precipitates her ensuing descent into madness. Of course Emily will be back because on a soap you’re not dead until you’re dead. Ada and Emily will rise again. It is Ophelia, her baby, and God we still have to worry about.

What is the Cause of Thunder? runs through August 2 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission and is suitable for ages 12 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009

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