Neil LaBute is a playwright. By that I mean to say that he seems just naturally to know how to put individuals on a stage who hold our attention. They get into it with each other. They create danger and excitement and unpleasantness. We like the theatrical experiences he provides us.
We also may find them not very pleasant people to spend that time with. Part of our pleasure may be generated by that slight feeling of moral superiority we feel toward them. We may be bad sometimes, but not that bad. And we do get to keep our distance from them.
And very often with LaBute, after I have enjoyed the evening of nastiness, I look back and say, but what else was there?
Take his latest play, a world premiere now at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio thanks to the close working relationship and mutual admiration that has developed between the playwright and the Studio’s Artistic Director, William Roth. The play has only two characters for a full two acts of two hours and more, a mother and a son. Iris is a very famous and successful writer, much admired by her colleagues, winner of three Pulitzers and now being rumored for a Nobel.
But she was not a success as a wife and mother. She had sort of fallen in love and gotten married. Perhaps they were in grad school together, as they often are in such stories, I don’t remember exactly. He was a writer too, somewhat, mostly a teacher. They had a son, and for seven years or so she tried to be a wife and mother. Then one of her husband’s writings, a twenty-page start of something, caught her attention, and she realized it had possibilities. So after she fed her husband and son and put them to bed, she worked late at night to make something of those twenty pages. A best-seller. A prize-winner. Critically celebrated. And so began the life of a literary celebrity, the succession of best sellers, the interviews, the lectures, the prizes. Much better than cooking and cleaning and ironing and raising a son. The marriage ended and she was not reluctant to yield custody of her son to her husband. Occasional visits grew increasingly occasional. She had found who she was and what she was put here to do. And our playwright sometimes suggests that the fame is more important to her than the art. He should know.
Comfort begins with the son breaking into his mother’s house. LaBute does start with a bang. Cal has come to pick up some of his recently deceased father’s papers that his mother had promised to send him and never has. She returns before he makes his getaway. And so it begins. He is his father’s advocate. She is her own advocate. Should the woman always sacrifice for the man? What if she is the greater artist? Why should Joan of Arc not take on the man’s role if she is the one who can save France? A number of writers have found her and others like her fascinating figures.
And so we again tread the territory of what a woman’s obligations are. Yes, Iris had regrets. Cal claims to have suffered more. But he’s young. Maybe he’ll find himself.
And what depth there is in these two characters, in addition to the dramatic excitement, Kari Ely and Spencer Sickmann find and expand. Go thrill to what these two actors can do with this script.
Credit Annamaria Pileggi’s direction too. Her hand is evident. Patrick Huber has again created a miracle of space on that small stage with his set and lighting, though Erin Knadler is credited with Scenic Design, whatever the distinction may be. Teresa Doggett’s costumes unobtrusively complete the characters. Robin Weatherall designed the sound and Shaun Sheley choreographed mother and son’s physical tussle.
I may have reservations about Comfort’s script—surely an ironic title—but I’m always up for theatre on a grand scale like this.
Photo by Patrick Huber