Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dividing the Estate, a Timeless Tale at Dramaworks

Dividing the Estate is perhaps as relevant for today's self-centered, materially obsessed culture as it was when it was written in the 1980s.  It is a timeless tale of a vanishing way of life, old money being consumed by the expenses of maintaining an estate whose inhabitants do no work and where once bustling towns have become ghost towns because of urban sprawl and a severe economic recession. The real estate bust of the late 1980's was particularly hard on Texas and this play takes place in Horton Foot's mythical town of Harrison, Texas (where many of his plays are set).   But the play is also about loyalty and devotion, the playwright empathetically portraying his characters in spite of their weaknesses.  And it is a play that puts a smile on one's face with its humor, even with abundant heartrending overtones.

In fact, the play's Director -- also the Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks, who selects the plays and does the casting, Bill Hayes -- purposely chose this work for its timeliness:  "I know so many people where money is dividing the family.  There is a sense of entitlement to their parent's money, and by picking this play we're trying to say something to the community."

The Texas Gordon clan is divided, torn by feelings of entitlement, jealousy, rapaciousness and the hint that behind every fortune is a great crime.  This is family, sometimes at its worse, and sometimes at its best. The family gyroscope is its matriarch, Stella, all the characters spinning around her in one way or another and her control is absolute, sometimes exercised as a benign dictator to her children and sometimes lovingly, particularly to her 92 year old black servant, Doug, who has been with the family since he was five.  In fact Stella and Doug basically grew up together, so it is no wonder that Stella seems so devoted. He is indeed a surrogate family member. The other servants, Mildred and Cathleen also interact with the family, and these "downstairs" characters have their own dynamic interplay.

Shades of Chekov's The Cherry Orchard reverberate in the play, family coming together over an estate, a subtle drama with the sorrows and desires of ordinary people inextricably culminating in a denouement the audience can feel coming, and yet the characters are left dazed, staring blankly at the audience as the lights fade.  The exception is the one realist in the group, interestingly known as "Son," actually Stella's grandson, the only person in the family with some college education, who manages the estate, dolls out "advances" to his alcoholic and philandering Uncle Lewis and the demanding and avaricious Aunt Mary Jo on their shares of the estate. Son's own mother, Lucille, is Stella's "good" child, the perfect foil for the others.  Son fully knows what financial shambles the estate is in.  Although the signs of decay in their Texas town are omnipresent as well, to varyingly degrees the characters delusionally pin their hopes on a financial reversal from leasing their land for oil exploration.

There are hints that the sins of Stella's long dead husband and her progenitors shadow the family.   Stella says to Lucille. "Your father was a sinner -- he fathered children all up and down this county, black and white.  I warned him he'd be struck down right in his bed of iniquity, but he never was.  He died just as peaceful...," Lucille interrupting, saying "He didn't die peaceful, Mama.  He was in great pain when he died."  Stella replies, "Well he was in his own bed being cared for by his family.  I despised him, you know."

Another telling exchange is between Son, and the family, regarding how the estate came into being, Stella in denial.  Son remembers when he was a student a classmate accused him of  having "a blue belly just like your Yankee great-grandfather" -- a carpetbagger.  They go back and forth recounting the story, Son always referring to his great grandfather, Stella always correcting him saying great-great-grandfather, Son saying that "he stole land right and left by destroying legal records in the courthouse" and Stella protesting "He didn't steal the land. He didn't steal anything.... And my daddy told me that his daddy told him that you could buy land here for a dollar-fifty an acre, and people were abandoning their plantations because they couldn't make a living on them without their slaves, and he saved his money and bought as much land as he could, and that makes up our estate."  One never knows the complete story, but this exchange, which is as humorous as it is revealing, leads to the inevitability of the unfolding drama.

And so this bewildered and torn southern family tries to come to grips with its predicament.  They've been accustomed to a life on the dole and now the light of reality is at the end of their fictive tunnel.  The 5,000 acre estate is no longer productive, but a burden, taxes and expenses rising while revenue diminishes.

This is a production well worth seeing, a play by one of our most prolific playwrights having written more than fifty, Dividing the Estate being his last one before he died at the age of 92. Horton Foote also adapted To Kill a Mockingbird for the screen for which he won an Academy Award.  A truly remarkable playwright.   

And while it is so often referred to as a "comedy" these generally are not belly laughs, but rather, a chortle here and a titter there as we recognize ourselves and members of our own families in Foote's characters. As Hayes says: "You have to have the honesty before you find the comedy."

According to Hayes, he purposely chose his cast mostly from actors that have performed at Dramaworks before, or have worked together in other venues as it was important for them to quickly develop a chemistry -- like a real family.  In fact, extensive readings and discussions of the play among the cast preceded the technical blocking and rehearsals even though there were only 3-1/2 weeks to bring the production together.  And, indeed, the cast coalesces and you feel that this is family and although set in 1987, as relevant today.

Foote's regional Texas dialogue is lively, lots of give and take between the actors, so the play moves at a good pace, and director Hayes takes full advantage of the script, and the actors -- the largest cast assembled to date at any Dramaworks production -- shine in their roles. 

(Back Row) (LtoR) Natalia Coego, Rob Donohoe, Gretchen Porro, Leah Sessa, Gregg Weiner, Margery Lowe, Elizabeth Dimon, John Archie, Avery Sommers, & Deltoiya Goodman
(Front Row) (LtoR) Kenneth Kay, Kim Cozort, & Mary Stout photo credit :  Alicia Donela
These are all pros and it is hard to single out any one performance.  The interplay between Stella (Mary Stout) and her very different (but dependent) children, Lewis (Rob Donohoe), Mary Jo (Kim Cozort), and Lucille (Elizabeth Dimon), reveal well worn hurts, and expectations.  The "help," Doug (John Archie), Mildred (Avery Sommers), and Cathleen (Deltoiya Goodman)  have their own conflicts, and interaction with the family, many amusing, always touching. Bob (Kenneth Kay), Mary Jo's distraught husband, is now bankrupt, visiting from Houston with their two spoiled generation X children, Emily (Gretchen Porro) and Sissie (Leah Sessa).  Son (Gregg Weiner) is now engaged to Pauline (Margery Lowe), a schoolteacher, who tries to introduce news of the world into the family, with no success.  And finally, there is the teenager Irene (Natalia Coego), a waitress at the local "Whataburger" who, with great hilarity is introduced by Lewis towards the end of the play, as his beau.  The family jokes that soon they'll all be working at Whataburger until Pauline chimes in, "That's what they say America is becoming, you know, a service economy."  Indeed, "you have to have the honesty before you find the comedy."

We had a special treat weeks before the production, visiting Dramaworks' 7,000 square foot shop where their scenery is designed, made, assembled, and then eventually disassembled.  It starts with a model of the set, in this case an old fashioned living room and dining room, with a stairway to the bedrooms, but well-kept, upscale, one that hints at the past glory days of the Gordon estate.  The model is to scale and then the set is built to fit the stage. The scenic design by Jeff Modereger is a perfect showcase.
The model set
The model set from above
The actual stage set

The costume design is by Brian O'Keefe, and lighting design by Ron Burns.

Dramaworks lovingly transforms Foote's work into memorable, fun theatre.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Character is destiny, and yet everything is chance" -- Philip Roth

An absolutely fascinating, revealing, brilliant interview was given by Philip Roth to a Swedish journalist, Svenska Dagbladet, for publication there on the occasion of his novel, Sabbath’s Theater being translated into Swedish. The interview appeared in the March 18 New York Times Book Review as well.  It is almost unsuitable to quote any part of it without the whole, but I do so with the hope that by quoting the most salient points (to me), any reader of this will be motivated to read the full unexpurgated version on the NYT's web site.

Roth like Updike are in the pantheon of the authors I've followed most closely, having read nearly everything they've written.  Updike was silenced by his death a few years ago, a great loss and now Roth has decided not to write fiction any more.  I've felt his last few novels presaged that decision, being very-end-of-life focused.  Hopefully, Roth will long be a commentator on the literary scene and on the state of our nation for years to come, as evidenced by this interview.

About the main character in the novel, Sabbath, Roth says  Mickey Sabbath doesn’t live with his back turned to death the way normal people like us do.  No one could have concurred more heartily with the judgment of Franz Kafka than would Sabbath, when Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

When asked about his decision to stop writing, he said When I decided to stop writing about five years ago I did, as you say, sit down to reread the 31 books I’d published between 1959 and 2010. I wanted to see whether I’d wasted my time. You never can be sure, you know.....My conclusion, after I’d finished, echoes the words spoken by an American boxing hero of mine, Joe Louis. ..... So when he was asked upon his retirement about his long career, Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”

About the often heard accusation that misogyny runs deeply in his works, he replies:  Misogyny, a hatred of women, provides my work with neither a structure, a meaning, a motive, a message, a conviction, a perspective, or a guiding principle....My traducers propound my alleged malefaction as though I have spewed venom on women for half a century. But only a madman would go to the trouble of writing 31 books in order to affirm his hatred.....It is my comic fate to be the writer these traducers have decided I am not. They practice a rather commonplace form of social control: You are not what you think you are. You are what we think you are. You are what we choose for you to be. Well, welcome to the subjective human race. .... Yet every writer learns over a lifetime to be tolerant of the stupid inferences that are drawn from literature and the fantasies implausibly imposed upon it. As for the kind of writer I am? I am who I don’t pretend to be.

On the subject of the men in his books, As I see it, my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired. I have hardly been singing a paean to male superiority but rather representing manhood stumbling, constricted, humbled, devastated and brought down. I am not a utopian moralist. My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are.

The interviewer then asks “'The struggle with writing is over'” is a recent quote. Could you describe that struggle, and also, tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?"
Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace....Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Asked about his generation of writers and the state of contemporary American fiction, he morphs from fiction to his feelings about the world we now inhabit.  His observations on today's world are particularly profound:  Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever....You have 300 million people on a continent 3,000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture of races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.

His comments on American popular culture are priceless: The power in any society is with those who get to impose the fantasy....Now the fantasy that prevails is the all-consuming, voraciously consumed popular culture, seemingly spawned by, of all things, freedom. The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.

His final thoughts in the interview are about the nature of writing itself and what it may or may not reveal about the writer.  Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist....The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.

May we hear again and again from Philip Roth, perhaps not in imaginary literature, but in interviews such as this and essays.  To me he is still the reigning dean of American literature and intellectual thought.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Stately Yacht Visits

It's not often that we have "royalty" cruising by our home on the North Palm Beach Waterway.  First hearing the engines I knew it was a motor yacht. When I saw it I sprung for my camera. We've had some fairly large yachts go by, more than 100' feet in length at times, but this morning a "Trumpy" came to visit, one of the classic wooden boats built by John Trumpy & Sons.  These finely built ships were distinguished by their beautiful varnished mahogany superstructures and lustrous white painted hulls. Their interiors are stunning. Trumpy is best known as the builder of the U.S.S. Sequoia, which was the presidential yacht from Hoover to Carter and as such has hosted countless dignitaries during its long career (which still continues as a yacht charter).  

I think I've correctly identified this morning's surprise, a 68' Trumpy built in 1954, the M/V Liberty.  Ownership transferred fairly recently and therefore the listing is still on the web, well worth visiting to take in the fine woodwork craftsmanship of the interior. 

So, with my little digital I recorded Liberty's transit on the Waterway, with full appreciation of the rich history and the fine work of its builder, John Trumpy & Sons.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Jeremy -- A Smart(er) Cancer Survivor

A dear friend of mine, Jeremy Geelan, a colleague from my working days, the son of another colleague, Peter, who sold our books in Europe, celebrated a significant milestone this month, the three year anniversary of his radical surgery to deal with pancreatic cancer.  From all signs it was a complete success and Jeremy is now in full bloom as Chief Marketing Officer & Conference Chair at KAAZING Corporation.  He morphed into all things Internet from his humble beginnings as an analog publisher, but true to his nature even then he was looking to the future being founder and publisher of the "21st Century Studies" series (back in the good ole' 20th century) and some of those I co-published in US (Jeremy at the time was in the UK).

He confronted the lethal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer head on and entrusted his Doctors in Denmark to perform Whipple surgery, not an option for all forms of pancreatic cancer but, in his case (and probably Steve Jobs had he not pursued naturopathic options), a hopeful means of addressing this dreaded disease.  My father died of pancreatic cancer and I can attest, it is among the most terrible ways to pass into nothingness. 

This radical surgery is a nightmare and it is hard to imagine what Jeremy had to endure, during, after (I recall he was on his back for a very long period of time, trying to type in compromised positions to get on with his work) and then the dreaded follow-up chemotherapy.  As he describes the surgery: "The Whipple procedure cost me the lion's share of my pancreas, all of my gall bladder, a goodly portion of my stomach, and a portion too of my duodenum (small intestine)."  Yes, it is that radical, but Jeremy has his life back.

Soon after his Dad died -- of cancer as well (he was a mentor to me as I would like to think I've been to Jeremy), Jeremy presented me with a bound edition of the 1979 edition of Logophile, The Cambridge University Journal of Words and Language of which (naturally) Jeremy was the editor.  It is inscribed "To Bob from Jeremy 18 iii 1993.  Like books "words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts upon the unthinking" (John Maynard Keynes).  This day in loving memory of Dad, I'd like to present you with a volume of wildness.  It's where it all (for me) began -- in a garret undergraduate room at Cambridge belonging to an Open Exhibitioner in English called Jeremy Geelan."

From there Jeremy threw the gauntlet down and never looked back -- in spite of such health adversity.

I commend any reader to visit Jeremy's blog.  He doesn't post there very often, although he Twitters regularly.  But in response to his latest post, I responded,

Dear Jeremy,

I don't know what led me to your blog today. Call it an instinct. You don't post here very often, but I felt I ought to visit, and there it was, your fairly recent post. Brilliant. True. Very Jeremy. But ever since I've known you -- how many years, at least thirty? -- you've always been "smart." But you were "bucking bronco smart" -- undisciplined, your mind wondering everywhere. I would say your terrible, but successful bout with pancreatic cancer has made you more focused. You are now more smart in a focused way, about your career, and about the things that matter in life. I feel privileged to have known you so long, and to say congratulations on passing the third year landmark of your successful surgery. You did it bravely, trusting your doctors, and embracing your loved ones and your friends and colleagues. On to the future! Yours, Bob

I am copying his complete post below:

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Smarter
In ten days' time it will be three years to the day since I was successfully operated on for pancreatic cancer.  Some of you reading this may be unaware of the prior story; worry not, this is not a post about cancer. It is, though, a post about survival.

There's a saying about how 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' that many undergoing chemo- and/or radiation therapy often hear, or even use themselves, to make light of the unpleasantness of the process and to remind themselves that there is a flip side to the nastiness of the "planned poisoning" that they are enduring: it may extend their lives and is therefore “better than the alternative” (as in, death).

My purpled Twitter avatar, to mark World Cancer Day last month (Feb 4)

But recently a colleague of mine in the world of the Internet, Guy Kawasaki, hit upon a headline - I have yet to check whether it was Guy's own or whether he was passing on something from elsewhere - that, for me, is much more pregnant with meaning and possibility, in terms of viewing cancer in the first place, and chemotherapy/radiation treatment in the second, as a potential inflexion point for anyone who survives one or both:

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Smarter

This, for me, is the much more honest and uplifting statement. Do I feel stronger, having dodged the bullet - thanks to radical Whipple surgery - of the deadliest of all the cancers? Not really. If I could restore my strength to pre-diagnosis levels or above I'd be happy as a clam; realistically speaking, it is not especially likely, as there remain one or two challenges associated with Whipple surgery which tend to linger no matter how hard one tries - a surgically rearranged digestive system is plain not as effective as one that's been left intact.

On the other hand, do I feel smarter? Most emphatically, yes. The things that addressing and overcoming adversity teaches you - about yourself, about those who love you and are loved by you, about your professional colleagues both direct and indirect, about total strangers and/or long-lost friends; about nutrition, about the Internet, about the healing power of music and above all of love, about cognitive mysteries such as "chemo brain" and the reassurances increasingly offered by brain science; about physical capacity, about mental agility, about emotion, about faith…

In truth there isn't a single aspect of the human condition about which you do not, on being confronted with an early departure from the game of life, end up a tad smarter if on the contrary you have the good fortune to survive.

"Survival" and "survivor" remain the metaphors of choice when dealing with people like me but, speaking here only for myself, I am not sure how useful those words are. We are *all* survivors, after all; we all survive, daily, onslaughts of inconsiderateness or even plain cruelty, of injustice either direct or indirect, of disappointment and/or even despair. We all survive week in, week out the challenges of work and play, of life and love, of learning and of teaching, and of the eternal search for meaning in which we are all, to greater or lesser extents of awareness, engaged.

So the human being who "survives" cancer, of whatever variety, is no different from one who survives any other of life's curve-balls: bereavement, for example, or financial ruin. There is a commonality, and it is that of the bounceback or comeback. We humans are resilient. We have mastered endurance. We are *all* survivors. Of something. Of life itself, perhaps.

But the Kawasaki headline offers a more nuanced perspective.

Just as travel broadens the mind, or university, so pancreatic cancer it turns out is a hugely enriching life-phase that does, no doubt about it, leave you smarter. That it might just as easily have left you dead is not I think the point; many things kill us, from traffic accidents to natural disasters. But how many things actually make us smarter? We learn about humility - that is a given when quite literally your life (in the form of your innards) is for multiple hours in the hands of a surgeon. We learn about the irrefutable power of positivity. We learn about the boundaries of medicine and the central role of self-healing. We learn about the perils of certainty, and the corresponding importance of flexibility and agile modification of behavior and/or treatment. We learn about the often neglected importance of hydration. We learn about what truly makes us, and those around us, tick.

Now don't get me wrong. There are other ways to become wiser in this world, all of them less painful, less intrusive, and less detrimental and disruptive to the routine of yourself and your family. But that does not detract from this one, enduring truth, and I can vouch for it first-hand: What Doesn't Kill You - really, truly madly, deeply...take it from me - Leaves You Smarter.

Indeed, very Jeremy.