Summertime and the livin’ is… loud and over the top. Yes, ’tis the season for blockbusters. Non-stop action, action, action and special effects galore on the silver screen and even theatre has been getting into the act of late – one dimensional characters, lots of music and skimpy dialogue. Every time some big new spectacle comes down the pike, whether it’s on the screen or a stage, I sigh and think back to one of my favorite theatrical experiences. It was as minimal as it gets.
Way back in the 1980s when I was working at Actors Theatre of Louisville, we used to send plays overseas. The program was under the banner of the USIA, the United States Information Agency. USIA was around from 1953 to 1999 and was devoted to “public diplomacy.” As President Eisenhower said, the USIA’s mission was “to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between Americans and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad.”
Fortunately, we didn’t send Spiderman Turn Off The Dark overseas. At ATL one year we sent Of Mice and Men.
Just before the actors were heading off to, was it Japan that year? Romania? Anyway, those of us on staff went to watch a final rehearsal. All of the furniture, props and costumes had already been packed and sent. We watched the play in a rehearsal room in the middle of the afternoon – full daylight and not even a blackout at the end of the acts as an effect.
Ken Jenkins played George and Bill Smitrovich played Lenny. There was nothing but the story and fine actors. I was sitting about ten feet from them, completely riveted.
Spoiler alert. At the end of the play, George, the “mastermind” has decided the best thing to do is to shoot Lenny, his hulking, simple-minded friend. Ken as George points his finger – his finger! Not even a GUN! – at the back of Bill/Lenny’s head, as Lenny looks off in the distance hoping for a farm and rabbits. I was a puddle. Tears were falling. It was what you want theatre to be.
Take that Spiderman and your overwrought brethren. You wish you had that kind of impact.