play seventeen: how i learned to drive

the cadillac el dorado.
the cadillac el dorado.

Author: Paula Vogel

Published: 1997 (won Pulitzer in 1998)

Synopsis: Our narrator Li’l Bit takes us along the mainline of her difficult life and her fraught relationship with her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck. A series of purported driving lessons that extend from the cusp of pre-adolescence into adulthood explore the role that our rampant cultural misogyny plays in creating a social framework for psycho-sexual abuse.

What moved me: perhaps what I found most distressing about this work was the sympathy I felt for Uncle Peck. His manipulation of Li’l Bit is inexcusable – the abusive power that adults may hold over children is perhaps the most vile manifestation of control. However. Vogel gives him a monologue in which he makes his nephew promise that he will never be ashamed of his emotions, and we see his own suppression of whatever terrible demons (from his time as a soldier in the Pacific) force him to sometimes stand still, silent, choking so that this emotion does not spew out of his mouth. My sympathy led to self-disgust. How could I identify with this man’s trauma when his behaviour is so reprehensible? But that is the power of Vogel’s work. Humans are messy, complicated, loving, destructive beasts, and she forces us to encounter them fully.

play thirteen: angels in america: a gay fantasia on national themes (part one: millennium approaches)

The HBO Angel. Emma Thompson, naturally.
The HBO Angel. Emma Thompson, naturally.

Author: Tony Kushner

Published: 1993 (Pulitzer Prize winner)

Synopsis: Three threads of American living gradually interweave in the cold new era of Reagan and in the face of the catastrophic AIDS crisis. Louis is confronted with his own cowardice as he abandons his lover Prior to struggle with his diagnosis of AIDS alone. Mormon couple Harper and Joe struggle with the constraints of their religion as sexuality and addiction collide. Roy Cohn, a New York arch-conservative lawyer responsible for the death of Ethel Rosenberg, refuses to submit to the label entailed by his deteriorating health.

What moved me: it is incredibly difficult to articulate a single element of this work that is not breathtaking. I think, though, Kushner’s note about the staging is worthy of reproduction here for the perfect framework it creates for the play.

“The play benefits from a pared-down style of representation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands – which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic – the appearance and disappearance of Mr Lies and the ghosts, the Book hallucination, and the ending – are to be fully realised, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”

play four: buried child

Patti and Sam. So young. So fine.
Patti and Sam. So young. So fine.

Author: Sam Shepard

Published: 1978 (won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize)

Synopsis: Focused on the fragmentation of the Midwestern nuclear family that was central to the American dream. Vince returns to his family home to introduce girlfriend Shelley after a six-year absence. He finds a violently dysfunctional family who barely recognise him: his dying grandfather, the alcoholic Dodge; his mostly absent grandmother Halie; his father Tilden, whose mind seems to have stopped; his uncle Bradley, who chopped off his leg with a chainsaw. They are corkscrewed around a secret that slowly forces itself to the surface.

What moved me: the way Shepard stretches his imagery. Tilden enters the space with his arms full to brimming with ears of corn, and later with bushels of carrots; the way Halie enters the space “dressed completely in black, as though in mourning. Black handbag, hat with a veil, and pulling on elbow length gloves” and returns (ostensibly from the same outing) “wearing a bright yellow dress, no hat, white gloves and her arms are full of yellow roses.”