Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2006
I wanted to be sure to separate my reviews of Martha Mitchell Calling and No Background Music because I knew from the get-go that even though they are being performed as a double bill, they would be very different shows. I was right. Martha Mitchell Calling is a play, No Background Music is a telling. The latter won an award as a solo radio broadcast starring Sigourney Weaver, which says a lot about its format. What works well on radio will not always work well on stage or film or any other performance format. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a prime example.
No Background Music is a one woman piece based on the personal writings of Penny Rock, who served as an Army Nurse in Viet Nam. Rock is many things – a veteran, a former singer, a cancer survivor, an inspirational speaker – but she is not a dramatist. Nor is she the creator or performer of this piece – Normi Noël, a long time Shakespeare & Company member and director fills those roles. My admiration for both Rock and Noël’s accomplishments does not change the fact that No Background Music is not theatre.
During the intermission between Martha Mitchell Calling and No Background Music I had a moment to pick up Rock’s recent book He Called Me Lieutenant Angel*, a slim collection of poems and prose fragments centering on her relationship with a serviceman named Davey, with whom she had a personal relationship before he died on her shift.
Notice that I called it a personal relationship, not an intimate one, although why we call the relationship between a nurse and a dying patient less than intimate I am not clear. I can think of no more intimate relationship than that between the still living and the imminently dying (and I would remind you that in my day job I work as the assistant to a pastor), but for some reason we reserve the phrase “intimate relationship” to refer only to sexual relations, however fleeting and anonymous.
Had Noël created a two-person play between Nurse Penny and Davey, I could probably have heard and absorbed many of the difficult truths about combat and its aftermath that Rock wants to communicate. For instance, the audience hears, “A man came in with his testicles in his hand and asked me if I could reattach them.” If we heard that from a Penny Rock character we had grown to care about, telling that to a male character we also cared about, who happened to be lying dying on the bed before her the reaction would be very different. Either way, that’s a horrible thing to hear, but it would be more horrible, and therefore make its point better, if it was information shared between sympathetic characters.
Rock’s relationship with Davey is mentioned a few times in No Background Music but not frequently enough to make it central, and without the physical presence of Davey or any of Rock’s patients, it is just reporting.
If you come to me and tell me of a horrible war wound, I can sympathize and feel the pain. If you bombard me with the stories of dozens of them – and I know that in real life they come in hundreds and not dozens – I start to set up my barriers. There is just so much horror – no matter how true – that one audience member can absorb without tuning out.
Rock has an important message, but this is not the best way to convey it. Many audience members who had bought tickets for the double bill left at the intermission. A few others left during the 35-minute run of the show. Had they not read their programs or did they just wish to make a statement? Don’t tell me there are people still alive who support the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam!
I was disturbed that director Virginia Ness Ray had Noël holding a script during the performance. The brief 35 minute run time coupled with the fact that Noël created the piece would make it easy for her to memorize. And since she appears in a lovely black dress with pretty jewelry on an essentially bare stage there is no question that she is trying to portray Penny Rock. Why the papers in hand? I found them distracting and unprofessional.
As mentioned before, Noël looks lovely thanks to the simple but elegant gown Govane Lohbauer has designed for her. Cameron Anderson’s cascading fabric, strung from the very top of the Founders’ Theatre to the very edge of the thrust stage, isolates Noël, perched on a stool dead center, in dramatic fashion. As I said in my review of Martha Mitchell Calling I hate what the fabric does to the images projected on to it, but otherwise it is a very effective setting.
This double bill pairs the late Martha Mitchell and Rock as “Truth Tellers” for the Viet Nam era. Both women have important stories to tell, but while Jodi Rothe’s play does right by Mitchell, Noël’s attempt fails Rock. I hope that Noël and Rock continue to expand on their work together and come up with a real play in which to tell Rock’s story. This version worked well enough on radio to win a Sony Gold Drama Award. A proper stage version could pack a similar punch.
No Background Music, on a double bill with Martha Mitchell Calling runs in repertory through September 2 in the Founders' Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs for 35 minutes following the performance of Martha Mitchell Calling and a brief intermission. This show is not for the faint of heart of any age! For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
* Penny Rock will be in Lenox for two post-performance book signings of her non-fiction book of prose and poetry, He Called Me Lieutenant Angel: A Love Song From War on Wednesday, August 16 at 5:30 pm and Thursday, August 24 at 10:30 pm in Josie's Place, the lobby of Founders' Theatre. The book, released by the author's own company Three Dimension Publishing, makes its debut at Shakespeare & Company, and will be available in bookstores later this month, including the Company's Gift Shop and The Bookstore in Lenox.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006