Theater Review: “The America Plays” — Aisle of the Dead
By Bill Marx
Listening to the dead speak, amid the natural grandeur of Mount Auburn Cemetery, is a moving experience.
The America Plays by Patrick Gabridge. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Staged by Plays in Place at Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mt. Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA, through September 22.
American theater’s most famous scene set in a graveyard is the final act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, when Emily is warned by the deceased around her that memories of being alive will only bring her pain. The job of the dead, they tell her, is to forget the living. Emily learns quickly they are right and decides to join the armies of the indifferent. Apparently, the dead are instructed to be taciturn up north, as least in Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire. In Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery the dead are downright loquacious, at least in the theatrical afterlife envisioned by dramatist Patrick Gabridge, Mount Auburn Cemetery Artist-in-Residence. In the world premiere of the second series of his The America Plays, various historical personages, buried nearby (literally; this is a site-specific production), have plenty to say, their talk taking the form of regrets, explanations, apologies, accusations, remembrances, or gossip. Listening to ghosts, amid the natural grandeur of Mount Auburn Cemetery, is a moving experience.
We are invited to stroll through the gorgeous grounds, from graveside to graveside, first watching, in 1872, one of the founders of the cemetery, a now nearly blind Jacob Bigelow (Ken Baltin), evaluate a sphinx he commissioned. It is a monument to the dead of the Civil War (“Man of Vision”), and he expresses his (absurdly ironic) hope that there will never be another conflagration as terrible. A combative Harriot Kezia Hunt (Karen MacDonald) walks by, which leads to a robust confrontation with the aged Bigelow (“Variations on an Unissued Apology”) in front of the statue of Hygeia, the monument Hunt commissioned from the African-American sculptress Edmonia Lewis (Cheryl D. Singleton), who is also on hand to talk about injustices, though she was interred at Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery London. As an instructor at the Harvard Medical School, Bigelow contributed to the institution’s battle to keep women and blacks from attending the school. The now softened representative of the patriarchy is entreated to apologize.
We are treated to an eight-minute condensation by Joseph Story (Robert Najarian) of his rhetorically impressive, metaphysically reassuring 1831 dedication of the cemetery (“Consecration”) in the spot where the speech was originally given. A more playful segment brings together Lewis with two fellow female artistic comrades she consorted with in Rome — internationally renowned actress Charlotte Cushman (Sarah Newhouse), a literally immortal actress who is working on speeches from Hamlet and King Lear, and celebrated sculptor Harriet Hosmer (Amanda Collins). There follows a roundelay of hurt feelings, accusations of sexual betrayal, and apologies for wrongs done. A somewhat jarring departure from the quartet of interconnected segments caps the lineup. Set in the 20th century, “All The Broken Pieces” is a compelling multigenerational saga, related by Thomas (Tzolag) Amirian (Mathew C. Ryan), about the members of a family fleeing the 1914 Armenian genocide in Turkey.
In his program notes, Gabridge writes that he was concerned with stories that were “tied to the formation of our American identity.” Thus the au courant political points made by the playlets, from the exclusion of women and blacks to the challenges faced by immigrants. The dramatist’s dialogue is effective, if at times a tad earnest, his treatment of the walking dead affectionate and affecting. It would have been nice to have more humor, as when Hosmer and Cushman stop being snarky about a friend once they realize she might well be listening in at a nearby grave. And I wish that Gabridge had experimented a bit more (though I gather there was considerable friskiness in the first series). Could one think of a better place to stage a production of Play, Samuel Beckett’s 1963 one-act drama which features three talking heads sitting on top of their funeral urns? I’m not asking for something that radical, but if the play’s politics are modern, why not its dramaturgy?
Courtney O’Connor’s direction and the performances dip into Masterpiece Theatre hokiness on occasion, but generally the staging is intelligent, with an eye out for the striking image. Karen MacDonald brings some welcome snappiness to Harriot Kezia Hunt, Ken Baltin’s Bigelow sends off controlled flickers of comic cantankerousness, and moments of elegant melancholy are supplied by Matthew C. Ryan, Cheryl D. Singleton, and Robert Najarian. Given the conventions of 19th-century acting, Sarah Newhouse’s amusing Cushman could be even more over-the-top, while Amanda Collins supplies the necessary pathos as a woman keeping a tragic secret in “All The Broken Pieces.”
The America Plays can be precious at times. At one point, you are asked to chug by actors intoning poems by Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Carolyn Frances Orne, among others. The setup reduces the verse to aural wallpaper. You can’t tarry to appreciate the language because the next segment might be about to start. But I would also use the word precious about the production because it offers a rare, and refreshing, experience. In an effort to attract audiences presented with increasing alternatives for their time and money, stage companies are hyping up the rewards of theater, hawking it as some sort of elixir for the weary. For example, the Huntington Theatre Company’s branding lingo assures us that its productions will make us “feel more alive,” whatever that means. (Are there some people who are more or less dead?)
None of this juiced-up hokum applies here: the night I saw the show the weather was wonderfully temperate, the bucolic locations beautiful, and spirits of rest, peace, history, and yes, existential dread, wafted freely about. Communing with the dead is an unusual, and valuable, example of theater playing a meditative role. You are not being revved up, coached to be alive and thrive; instead, you are invited to sit back, think, and contemplate — on the quicksilver passage of time, of course, particularly the fleetingness of life and the nature of the theater. As Gabridge explained in a post-performance talk, The America Plays can only be performed in this location. They will not be produced again, and there is no movie deal in the works. This Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday will be it — Carpe diem.
Personal Note: I can’t visit Mount Auburn Cemetery without thinking about my dear friend, Skip Ascheim, whose ashes are buried on its grounds. He died, too soon, at the age of 56 in 2000. Critic, director, Go player supreme, bearer of uncommon parking karma, and lover of Shakespeare, I have no doubt that, if Gabridge is right and Cushman is running lines from Hamlet and King Lear through eternity, he is there at her side, offering his advice and expertise.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.