So all my books, certainly this one, tries to create a memory of what was, and what is, and what can be. Basically, that’s what it’s all about.
Studs Terkel, Dec. 2003 Interview
In Lost & Found – Kathryn Schulz’s extraordinary recent memoir about losing her beloved father while falling in love with her future wife – Schulz suggests that the reason some losses can be “so shocking” is “not because they defy reality but because they reveal it.”
“Over and over,” she continues, “loss calls on us to reckon with the universal impermanence – with the baffling, maddening, heartbreaking fact that something that was just here can be, all of a sudden, just gone.”
How, in the face of profound loss, do we manage to keep on keeping on? And how might those losses actually help us to find our way toward new discoveries about ourselves and the world in the years to come?
In the waning days of the World Premiere Wisconsin festival, I saw three WPW plays – opening hundreds of miles apart in a 24-hour span – wrestle with versions of this question. Coming in the wake of a pandemic through which so many of us lost so much, that question has never been more relevant – or harder to ask and consider.
Even though they dive deep, all three of these plays are comedies. Each presents a world – and the grieving people within it – as lost and stuck. Each involves an outsider – an embodiment of those discoveries we might still make, were we to look up and out from our all-consuming sorrow – who helps point the way forward.
Here’s my report; if you plan on seeing either of the still-open Door County shows I discuss, I warn you now that it contains spoilers.
My three-play tour began last Wednesday at Waukesha Civic Theatre, with a reading of Deanna Strasse’s Greetings from Green Lake. Set in the popular Wisconsin resort town commemorated in Strasse’s title, it revolves around two lonely women in their late fifties and the 29-year-old visitor who unexpectedly rouses them from their torpor.
As their nearly identical names suggest, housemates Lynda and Melinda are obverse sides of the same coin.
The divorced Lynda is grieving the recent death of her 55-year-old parrot Jojo, who’d been “almost as old as I am.” Melinda lost her longtime husband Mitch three years ago and won’t sleep in the bedroom they’d once shared.
Lynda is beset by grief; she can’t even bring herself to dismantle Jojo’s huge cage, which remains prominently displayed in the living room, underscoring Lynda’s own imprisonment in the past.
Conversely, Melinda won’t acknowledge her grief – not just for her husband, but more still for how little she really knew of who he was, and how little she herself lived as she lost herself in his shadow.
Enter Beth, Melinda’s dryly humorous 29-year-old niece. While Lynda and Melinda are stuck, Beth can’t seem to settle down; she’s working a dead-end job and drifting, telling lies about who she is and what she does because she can’t determine where to go or what she wants.
But Beth does know she wouldn’t want to become either of the two women she’s with. As an outsider, she can see what they themselves cannot, about how small their lives have grown as they exist rather than live, in a town which Strasse indicts as provincial and small-minded. Think Grover’s Corners, with all that its folksy aura hides regarding how mean and narrow it can be.
Strasse introduces us to some of Green Lake’s residents, channeling passive-aggressive “Wisconsin nice” while engaging in petty and nasty gossip about each other and betraying their fear of and ignorance regarding outsiders.
An illustrative example: the Jewish Lynda is suspected of witchcraft when her Star of David necklace is mistaken for a Satanic pentagram. Lynda is spot-on when noting that her Green Lake neighbors “just need to get out more.”
But so does Lynda herself. She believes that she’s capable of prolonging life or even raising the dead; it’s not for nothing that she’s keeping Jojo’s carcass on ice in a cooler.
Her delusion is a variation of what afflicts Melinda, who tells uplifting stories about her life and her town rather than admitting the limitations of both and asserting herself; it’s easier for Melinda to go along so she might get along, cultivating the illusion of life rather than actually living.
Both women are reluctant to relinquish the feeling that they’re in control of the stories they’ve shaped to lull themselves asleep. But as Schulz writes, “the whole lesson grief teaches us is that we are not the ones in control.”
It takes Beth – sad, lost, and without the decades Melinda and Lynda have spent constructing thick, insulating carapaces protecting them from life – who wakes both women up and allows them to move forward.
Letting go of the past, they in turn give Beth the courage she needs to face an uncertain future. Green Lake may be the deepest inland lake in Wisconsin. But that’s no reason to avoid plunging beneath the surface and plumbing its depths, en route to discovering who one might yet become.
At the top of Sean Grennan’s A Rock Sails By – Peninsula Players Theatre’s entry in WPW – we listen as a woman plays back a message which we’ll soon come to see is an endlessly repeating loop.
Dr. Lynn Cummings may be an acclaimed and Nobel-nominated astrophysicist who derides anything she can’t prove as so much mystical poppycock. But she’s also grieving the sudden death two years earlier of her husband Tom; the message she’s continually playing back is his final voice mail to her, left shortly before his fatal heart attack.
Throw in the diagnosis of early dementia that Lynn receives and one can understand why the terrific Janet Ulrich Brooks who embodies her is so angry, as she wonders whether her life has had a point. When you stick to the facts and don’t believe in an afterlife, that question can be a stumper.
Thankfully for Lynn and despite her curmudgeonly exterior, she can be as much of a softie as Olive (Rebecca Hurd), the daughter she labels “sentimental.” And while Lynn doesn’t believe that a mysterious object hurtling toward earth is more than a rock sailing by, she cops to wishing it could be more.
“What a comfort that would be!,” she says at one point, admitting how “hard” it is to think we’re all alone – while noting that we’ll never again be with the dearly departed who we’ve loved and lost.
Is it dementia-induced wish fulfillment that thereafter brings Lynn a Messenger (Sean Fortunato) as that “rock” makes a pitstop? Or are we witnessing a close encounter between her and the great beyond – what that messenger alternately refers to as an opened window and a cracked door – allowing her to reach out and briefly talk with her beloved Tom?
To his credit, Grennan doesn’t try to answer that question, and director Linda Fortunato’s designers have similarly let the mystery be.
Joe Court’s arresting sound design plays up the whooshing and disorienting sounds Lynn occasionally hears. Are they announcing an incoming vehicle from outer space? Symptoms of dementia, as the sound inside reaches deafening levels? Or both?
Sarah Ross’ scenic design features various abstract geometric shapes suggesting Stonehenge and spaceships – our reach toward the beyond in time past and time future – in which the very concept of time implodes. Two of Ross’ structures spell out A.D. – Anno Domini – backward, thereby emphasizing the futility of measuring time in relation to God.
How, then, are we to make sense of what Grennan described to me a few weeks ago as the “day pass” that is a human life? How does our time matter, and what should we do with it? How do we orient and measure ourselves as the sands slip through the hourglass?
Underscoring what’s suggested by Ross’ design, Fortunato’s Messenger answers by channeling the T.S. Eliot of the Four Quartets, with a vision in which “time past and time future/What might have been and what has been/Point to one end, which is always present.”
As translated, by the Messenger: “Time is not moving on. Time is always happening,” connecting us to what was and what will be, while ensuring that those who’ve left us are still here and that we ourselves live on even after we’re gone, all connected through a present that simultaneously looks backward and forward.
How we remember – and how we’ll be remembered – depends on living fully within the present and making the most of it, so that we might better appreciate how every moment is filled with intimations of immortality, connecting us to a world beyond ourselves.
During an engaging talkback, Brooks noted how “healing” this play had been for her, as someone who’d lost her father to dementia and who is herself closer to the end than the beginning.
As am I, and as was most of the audience watching alongside me. I’d like to think this funny, beautiful, and courageous play meant as much to them as it does to me.
Yes: A Rock Sails By goes to some dark places that we’d like to pretend don’t exist.
But even in death it also resoundingly champions the meaning of life, lifting one’s spirits much as it buoys Lynn herself. In the same breath in which she admits how little she knows – tacitly owning how scary this is – Lynn also exclaims with wonder that she nevertheless has hope, giving her reason to live.
Like Lynn, Amos Stillman is grieving the loss of a spouse when we first meet him in The Fish Whisperer (book by Scott Guy; music by Dan Wessels and Ron Barnett; lyrics by Robin Share, with additional lyrics by Guy). Under Molly Rhode’s direction, The Fish Whisperer is the WPW entry from Door County’s Northern Sky Theater.
But despite his revealing name, Amos (Jeff Herbst) isn’t the only one who’s stuck in the fictional vacation destination of Shewauga, Wisconsin; as I’d noted in my preview of The Fish Whisperer for this blog, the entire town has fallen asleep.
Shewauga’s residents go through the motions of living and loving; even Amos pastes a fake smile on his face. But there’s no heart in it, and they’re growing restless and bored – with their town, with each other, and with life itself. As with the townies we meet in Green Lake, they’re devolving into comic grotesques, fighting among themselves and suspicious of outsiders.
Worst of all for a town that lives and dies on tourist dollars, the fish aren’t biting, signaling Shewauga’s alienation from the natural world, in a show where the damage wrought by climate change is a strong and consistent undercurrent.
It’s therefore no surprise to learn that Amos hasn’t fished since his wife Christine died; catch-and-release fishing had been the couple’s favorite pastime. Without Christine by his side, Amos sees no point to being near or on the water, communing with nature and talking to the fish.
Lisa Schlenker’s scenic design captures the mood. More than a dozen hung panels depict various scenes of fishing life, including an angler’s hat, rod, and tackle as well as a pier and the shimmering water (art by Carri Dahl). But those panels are separated from each other, like pieces of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle – or like Shewauga’s residents themselves – that can’t come together to form a satisfying whole.
As in both Green Lake and A Rock Sails By, it takes an outsider to shake things up and restore a community to itself; it arrives at Northern Sky as Hannah Waters (Lachrisa Grandberry), a self-styled Fish Whisperer and environmentalist.
Speaking with the commanding authority of a biblical prophet, Hannah tells the townies that they’ll never overcome their grief or get right with each other unless they first heal their fractured relationship with Nature, including all creatures great and small.
Viewed from one angle, Hannah’s prescription for Shewauga – learning a fish dance through which the townies won’t just channel their inner fish but also speak to the fish in the water – can sound goofy. But it’s also textbook Wendell Berry: we’ll never make things right with the world unless we learn to speak its language and thereby strengthen our connections with its occupants.
Our collective grief, Hannah suggests, is a result of our isolation; as she explains in one especially rousing song, we need to reconnect by becoming one with the “fishes” and one with the water, one with the turtle and the heron and the otter.
Hannah’s prescribed cure had worked for Hannah herself. Like Amos, she is grieving, having lost her brother Matthew; she tells the townies that she misses him “every day of the year.”
When Amos finally takes the bait – joining his daughter (Jamie Mercado) as well as Hannah in talking to the fish, through a poignant song that snuck up on me and made me cry – he realizes that in doing so “I’ve made a start/To clear my head and heal my heart.”
“Many of us,” writes Schulz in Lost & Found, “have found the world to be . . . disconnected, fragmentary, devoid of logic or meaning. And many of us have occasionally felt ourselves to be disconnected as well – felt that, whatever the state of the world, we stand apart from its workings, unable to muster interest in doing anything.”
Schulz’s prescription – like Berry’s and like Hannah’s – is connection; the more aware we are of each other and our world, the more interested we’ll be in what they’re doing. “Our moral power,” she writes, “comes from asserting connections that have previously been invisible or overlooked.” The more closely we’re tied to others, Schulz adds, the happier we’ll be.
Schulz could have been describing the ripple effect of World Premiere Wisconsin, which has certainly made me more aware – despite two full decades spent covering Wisconsin theater – of connections I’d overlooked, while strengthening those I’d previously made. It’s also given me opportunities to speak with and watch scores of theater artists throughout the state.
I’ll save the personal valediction until I sign off with a farewell column next Friday. I’ll sign off today by noting how fully the three plays discussed here confirm anew what World Premiere Wisconsin has repeatedly driven home:
Working and playing together during the past four-plus months, amidst one of the greatest existential crises in American theater’s history, has served notice to the entire American theater community of how much we could do if we’d simply heed Joe Hill’s dictum: Don’t mourn, organize.
Don’t get me wrong. We can’t and shouldn’t ever ignore the grief afflicting either our theater or our country, scarred as both have been by all that’s gone down during the past three years. But we also can’t reduce ourselves to that grief. We’re so much more than – and better than – that.
Maybe we’ll never learn to talk to either space aliens or fish. But as World Premiere Wisconsin has consistently demonstrated, we can work similar miracles – and experience similar, life-affirming joy – when we talk to each other. Dare I say it? It’s cause for hope.
A Rock Sails By continues through July 2 and The Fish Whisperer continues through August 25 in Door County’s Fish Creek. Learn more about both productions as well as the now-closed Greetings from Green Lake by visiting https://worldpremierewisconsin.com/all-shows/.