Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from
Everybody is a worryin’ ‘bout where
They’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done
But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
– Iris DeMent, “Let the Mystery Be”
In 2017, playwright Sean Grennan heard an NPR report about an unidentified and unusually shaped object that entered our galaxy and made a beeline for Earth. Before getting close and finally swerving, it was observed changing speeds, seemingly course correcting, and emitting a gas that might plausibly have been exhaust or thrust.
Scientists had only recently developed the technology to track such objects; it’s possible there’d been similar “visits” before this one. But they’ve seen nothing like it in the six intervening years – during which Grennan wrote A Rock Sails By.
Under Linda Fortunato’s direction, it will make its debut next week at Door County’s Peninsula Players Theatre – the fourth Grennan play to do so. But Grennan’s play almost never took flight. “I started working on this in 2017, got 30 pages in, and hit a roadblock,” Grennan recalled, during a recent phone conversation.
Grennan had his main character: Lynn Cummings, who’ll be played by acclaimed Chicago actor Janet Ulrich Brooks, is a brilliant, no-nonsense astrophysicist – a “hard-ass in many ways,” Grennan said – who receives a diagnosis of early onset dementia, right around the time an unidentified flying object swims into Earth’s view.
How might Lynn’s diagnosis – or that mysterious object, which the fact-based Lynn dismisses as “a big nothing rock” rather than as a sign of intelligent life – change her life, if at all?
Grennan soon realized why he was stuck: continuing a flight path he’d been on for some time, this gifted comedic writer was daring to go farther than he’d never gone before. While his more recent comedies hadn’t exactly avoided bigger questions, this one was heading straight at them. “I was exploring and exposing parts of my soul,” Grennan said.
The Mystery of Life
“Initially in my plays, I just wanted to make an audience laugh and send it home smiling,” Grennan said. “And I still want there to be humor; this play has it,” he continued. “But I also try to go deeper with each show; there is a progression.”
Stuck on page 30, Grennan wondered if this time he’d gone too far.
“I’m from the unassuming Midwest and I was raised Catholic,” Grennan said. “You’re not supposed to talk about the sorts of things I take on in this show, and you’re not supposed to make big statements” involving existential questions like the meaning of life, where we go when it’s done, and whether there’s an afterlife.
But Grennan is also now 67. And he’s been through a pandemic.
“Being a man of a certain age, it sometimes seems that every time I go on Facebook, another friend has died. I’ve now lost my mother and several good friends. Those losses made me think about some of the bigger issues in this show. I’m increasingly aware that we’re guaranteed nothing at all; we’re here on a day pass.”
Getting older also has a way of placing things in perspective; you’re less apt to sweat the small stuff.
“Age gives you permission to say things without worrying so much about ducking the naysayers,” Grennan said. “And this piece has characters who can plausibly say them.”
Grennan got them on their feet by putting aside those early pages and writing a scene that comes late in the play, through which a new character challenges Lynn to move in a different direction. Grennan’s way forward then involved bridging the gap between what he’d initially written and this late scene – while helping us understand Lynn so we can make sense of her journey.
Stick to the Facts
Easier said than done.
The Lynn we first meet is consumed by her career; it’s created distance between her and her daughter Olive, as well as between her and her students.
Acerbically funny, Lynn talks to Olive and students alike from on high; frequently the smartest person in the room, she’s grown dangerously accustomed to assuming that nobody can teach her anything new because she knows it all.
Sure, she’s an astrophysicist, working in a field absorbing new facts about space every day. But Lynn sees these holes as short-term gaps in our knowledge of soon-to-be known facts rather than as evidence of greater, unsolvable mysteries. “Just because science can’t explain something immediately,” she tells a journalist, “doesn’t mean it’s not going to be explainable eventually.”
So much for imagination and story.
“In the sciences and hopefully in life, you’ll base your decisions on facts,” Lynn tells her students. “And when you can’t find those facts, refrain from making things up. Abide.”
In moments like these, Lynn sounds like a latter-day Gradgrind, the killjoy Coketown superintendent in Dickens’ Hard Times who insists that all “I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.”
As is also true with Gradgrind, Lynn’s approach leaves her lonely and cut off from the world, especially after her beloved husband dies, two years before Grennan’s play begins. Once she’s diagnosed with early onset dementia, her once rock-solid assumptions about how the world works receive another jolt.
“She’s cracking a bit,” Grennan said. “And despite her lecture to her students, she wants to think there’s more. After her diagnosis, she’s forced to recognize that she might have been too stoic, too much of the mind.”
And, perhaps, so focused on the little things that she’s risked missing the big picture – ironic, given that she’s an astrophysicist exploring space.
“We can’t be so distracted by the minutiae,” Grennan said. “Yes, we’ve still got to get through the day and get the oil changed, but we’re more than that. Life is more than that.”
What if we were to inhabit life’s bigger mysteries rather than always arrogantly assuming we can solve them? And what if we were to accept the intrinsic mystery within each of those around us, rather than reducing them and labeling them as easily digestible factoids we can plug into our phones? Might we actually learn to see our neighbors rather than dissect or google them?
“This is a show about mindfulness – about just being there for each other,” Grennan said. “It’s about being present, and maybe recognizing how much we have in common. There’s so much division in our country right now. We’ve become positions rather than people.”
What might we discover, if we could but learn to truly ask and then actually listen?
Like that unidentified 2017 rock – or spaceship – that flew by, Grennan’s play doesn’t have the answers; part of the message in A Rock Sails By is that we need to become more comfortable living with the questions.
But here’s a takeaway he offered me, about both this play and why he writes at all: theater is ideally suited to help us live with such questions, by coming together to make believe.
“Live theater allows us to all be in the room together, living and enjoying the good and the bad in life, but being in it and being present,” he said.
Performances of A Rock Sails By run from this coming Tuesday, June 13 through July 2 at 4351 Peninsula Players Road in Fish Creek. To learn more, visit https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/event/a-rock-sails-by-2/.