BROOKLYN, NY; March 6, 2020—Riva is probably right — she usually is: No one would dare cough or sneeze in a theater right now. You’d be stared down and tsk-tsk’ed right up the coronavirus-disinfected aisle.
But it’s a tense, respectful, hold-in-your-stomach quiet we’ve experienced in theaters the last few weeks, the kind of quiet that reigns at the fraught intersection of astute playwright with an ear (and pen) for eloquently spoken language; fine actors; and heightened audience receptivity. The plays: “Anatomy of a Suicide,” at the Atlantic; “Cambodian Rock Band,” at the Signature; and “Coal Country,” at the Public.
We’ve subscribed on and off at all three theater companies for 20+ years. We know we won’t “like” much of what we see, but we almost always respect it, appreciate it. Case in point: “Halfway Bitches Go to Heaven,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, at the Atlantic. We left (my urging; Riva would have stayed) at the intermission, my stomach too knotted by the no-way-out bleakness of the characters’ all-too-realistic lives. Still, it was well written, beautifully portrayed, aptly staged, and I was in the minority in lacking receptors for it. I’d enjoyed several of Guirgis’s earlier plays, and in retrospect, I’d like to see the second half now, find out where he took those characters, though as is the norm at small theaters, the play was gone in a matter of weeks.
Bleakness — whether the no-way-out or the ambiguously hopeful variety — is at the core of “Anatomy of a Suicide,” “Cambodian Rock Band” and “Coal Country,” too. Oddly enough, “Suicide” is the ambiguously hopeful entrant here. Three generations of women are played out simultaneously side-by-side on stage, their stories and lines overlapping and sometimes united, chorus-like. There are slow reveals for the relationships. And each overcomes and succumbs to a variety of demons at different points, exploring in the course of the evening the degree to which mothers, husbands, children, and others enter into each woman’s questing. It is a verbal, and sometimes visual, ballet, devastating throughout.
While I have no doubt that playwright Alice Birch knows some iteration of the characters in “Anatomy of a Suicide,” newspapers and history books attest to the realities of “Cambodian Rock Band” (which structures a fictional family story around historic events) and “Coal Country” (a direct work of documentary theater). Music is also central to the telling of the stories in the latter two plays, in the first instance as a key element to the story itself, in the second as emotional underpinning.
Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” depicts an adult daughter unraveling her father’s long-hidden abuse at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and his guilt over killing a friend, who initially saved him, in order to escape. The father was a musician in a Cambodian surf band prior to the Khmer Rouge coming to power — we see and hear them rehearsing and recording as the play opens — at which point music was banned. Music is key to the father’s survival before Pol Pot’s No. 2 and awkwardly becomes his peace-making moment with his daughter. This last segment, which seques into a mock-celebratory mini-concert at the end of the play, is the only misdirected element in the night. The knotted-stomach moments are most concentrated in the second act, much of which takes place in a former school room turned torture chamber. Yee needed something to relieve the pressure, but the mini-concert merely deflates it.
“Coal Country,” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, whose best-known prior such effort was “Exonerated,” uses verbatim dialog based on interviews with two survivors and some of the families of the other 29 miners who died in the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Five years later, Massey CEO Don Blankenship was found guilty and jailed for willfully violating mine safety standards. The play is framed by Blankenship’s trial, but its heart is the testimony of the miners and their families, their extensive family histories working in the mines, and the horrific recounting of waiting for word of their husbands, sons, nephews, and friends in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
Songwriter Steve Earle — an underappreciated hero of Americana music whose lineage might include Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, Hedy West, Aunt Molly Jackson, and John Prine, to name a few — underscores the drama here. His songs, written for the production, are neither character- nor story-driven, but they immeasurably heighten the tension of a story whose outcome is well known.
[Personal aside: I have a soft spot for coal mining stories, history, and union organizing. In college, I tailored a paper I wrote on the music of Appalachian coal miners for classes in history, political science, ethnomusicology, sociology and others. It’s a good thing professors didn’t have access to online plagiarism-checkers, even if I was only plagiarizing myself.]
Much has been written about noisy, text-messaging, candy unwrapping audiences of late; I’ve complained about it myself. And on theater critics Terry Teachout/Peter Marks/Elisabeth Vincentelli’s “Three On the Aisle” podcast recently, talk was whether personal crises gets in the way of a critic’s role. The bottom line, said Teachout, who is caretaker for his wife as she awaits a double lung transplant, was that if the show is good, you get lost in it. If you’re bored, anything distracts. This is true of all theater patrons, not just critics.
These last few weeks at the Atlantic, Signature, and Public Theaters, everyone got lost. And their respectful silence spoke loudly of transformation.
Anatomy of A Suicide at The Atlantic through March 15, 2020.
Cambodian Rock Band at The Signature through March 22, 2020.
Coal Country at The Public through April 5, 2020.