Holy Days

I don’t consider myself a reviewer at all, and that’s because so much of my opinion of theater is informed WAY too much by a) gut reaction, b) my relationship to the people making the show and c) my understanding of how hard it all is. The difference between bloggers and reviewers is that bloggers are speaking from the inside out, and reviewers are measuring a play against some universal idea of a perfect theatrical experience. I can’t talk about what “one’s” response to a piece of theater will be, I can only tell you what each piece means to me, on that day, in those circumstances.

That being said, if you’re wondering how close your opinion will be to mine, then please start by seeing Retro Productions latest show “Holy Days”, because this show seemed to be crafted to knock my socks off. It is an intensely small show, a living room drama essentially (although the room in question is hardly a Victorian drawing room) which still encompasses so much of the human experience.

I’m gonna get to the sets and costumes in a minute, because despite the fact that they are breath-taking, it’s the story here that is so compelling. The play has a hint of Pinter, with judicious under-writing and long stretches of dialogue that feel almost like blank scenes. The story is two brothers and their wives, living on a farm in the middle of the dust-bowl, in the depths of the depression, but the circumstances serve to boil down the standard inter-family dynamics, like turning sugar-water to an acrid syrup.

There are actually seven characters here. The brothers, their wives, the child on the way, the child who was lost, and the dust. The dust exists as a physical manifestation of the horrors of the time, like a hand choking the farm, stealing their crops, stealing their farm… even stealing their children. I love it when plays are constructed with a ticking clock, and this family’s desperation, their proximity to starvation and destitution, is a silent countdown to destruction.

In some ways, we all hate our families as much as we love them. But, during holidays, when we’re all stuck together (say, an Easter Weekend), we just go see a movie. Or turn on the TV. Or go to a different room. This family has nowhere to go, no distractions, no entertainment save a deck of cards, which they use, still staring at each other across the table. But they want to talk about what’s going on as much as we do – not at all. So the tiny battles become life defining and the small annoyances become utterly maddening.

I get frustrated when people use the loss of a child in a play or movie because it’s usually a shorthand for depth. All of us will lose our parents and all of us will lose friends and possibly even spouses, so as a plot side-note, this doesn’t bother me, but none of us should lose a child, it’s an unnatural chain of events. Holy Days actually honors that, the loss of the child isn’t one of the things that happens, it informs the entire play, it is essentially a brilliant catalyst for all of the action.

Now, the first thing you notice at any Retro Productions show is that they do more with a theater space than just about any other company producing at our level. We all have to fight for verisimilitude in a world where a bench has to be a couch, or where a crappy couch has to be a nice couch, but Team Cunningham drenches you when you walk in.

It’s a farmer’s kitchen in the early 1930s, and while you are gonna be killed by the giant iron wood burning stove, and the perfectly horrible noise of the snapping screen door, the detail work is insane. There is a box of period matches sitting next to a DIFFERENT BOX OF PERIOD MATCHES. Two different brands. The cupboard in the back has the functional crockery that the characters uses, sitting next to a full compliment of crockery that nobody touches. It’s amazing. When the men enter the space and take off their hats, dust pours off them.

I admit, it says as much about what we’ve come to expect as it does the brilliance of the designers. But these guys are unwilling to live within the restrictions that most of us find ourselves in, and if it’s family connections that make these sets and costumes possible, then God bless ’em. My whole life has been a study in nepotism, and a noble failure means far less to me than gettin’ lucky with your folks. In their last show, a character orders toast at a diner, and the whole theater started smelling like toast. That just never happens.

The cast. My God. It could be argued that when you’ve got a four person cast, it’s easier to find personell, but if you’ve got twelve people and one of them isn’t very good, you don’t really notice. With four people, they all have to be insane and in this case, the cast is pitch perfect.

Cassandra M. J. Lollar, who had a very small role in Retro’s last productions, gets to show off her considerable skills in this piece. While it doesn’t seem to be explicitly textual, the white hot, jaw-clenching tension between her and her sister-in-law informs the entire play. Two women, who barely ever see anyone else, with two kitchens and two quickly emptying pantries… when one shows up with a home-made pie, it’s as intense as weightlifters at a gym. Lollar weighs every second, calibrating second-by-second to appear innocent when she’s aggressive and sweet when she’s conniving. She has crafted a surgically nuanced performance, with equal parts buoyancy and weight.

Most terrific looking people, like Lowell Byers, have a tendency to rely on their beauty to knock out the audience and then just do their lines and wear nice t-shirts. Byers has the physique of a swimmer and the pure good looks of someone who should probably be very famous in about six months… but while he’s here in our community, he’s working every moment. In much the same way as he did in “Look After You” in this summer’s Fringe Festival, he serves the play, not the other way around. He exudes such a calm, even temperament, just existing in each moment, underplaying his own existence. Our company isn’t producing anything until the fall of 2010, and it makes me sad because I’m pretty sure Lowell will be living in LA by then, missing the real work, but doing laps in a pool filled with cash.

Joe Forbrich is the kind of actor you pick a play for. Looking at his resume after the show, I found myself wishing I had also seen him in everything else he’s done. He’s playing a strong-jawed dust-bowl farmer in this play, but he never once veered into caricature. His steely resolve, melted only by the love he has for his wife… He’s teaching a master class in every performance, and every young actor should come see this play to watch him, and the others, so they know how to avoid tropes and simply tell a story.

And Heather Cunningham… Look, there’s no money in theater, there’s barely any exposure and sometimes it feels as if we’re shoveling snow in a blizzard, so every project is, on some level, a vanity project. Anyone who denies that is simply lying. Even now that I’ve quit acting and haven’t been a part of writing in several years, the act of production, for me is judged purely by how many people tell *ME* that they liked it.

But Heather continues to make h
eart scraping choices when she decides who she is gonna play and how. It isn’t interesting to watch a person be depressed, it isn’t interesting to watch a person mourn, and it’s deeply boring to watch passive aggression and self-denial in real life, it’s even worse on stage. So it is a great testimony to Ms. Cunningham that she saves the worst character for herself, a study in self-absorption and misery that still, somehow, simply pops off the stage.

I don’t actually know how she does it. I couldn’t. My most profound weakness as an actor is the implicit apology I carry around for being unattractive, my sense that every character I play is fighting, always, to achieve something, something noble. Heather has instead opted for a study in defeat, a zombie living with an unimaginable horror. And because of this, her small and intense redemption, the final admission of her sadness, carries a universal significance, and the room was filled with sobs. All vanity aside, it takes enormous courage to create this character inside this amazing story, and I’m slowly beginning to realize that there’s probably nothing Heather can’t do.

Of course, this play wouldn’t crackle the way it does without Peter Zinn’s invisible hand. It seems that directors are often separated into two categories, those who stage well and those who create realistic characters, but Mr. Zinn is articulate on both fronts. The hostility between the two women, while not overt in the script, was utterly necessary to keep the play moving, and the use of the fantastic set space created both a sense of the hollow outside world, and the claustrophobic living quarters – so much so that it seemed as if the playing space contained the only oxygen in the play, the every exit required holding your breath.

My only real criticism, and this does eventually land at the feet of the director, was in the sound design. Too often we could hear entrances and exits from upstage and when you’ve created this level of detail elsewhere, it really takes you out of the play. Also, when we switch from scene work to monologue, there is the terrible decision to play a piece of synthesized string music over the light cue. It was a god-awful sound and, in a play of such incredible nuance and subtlety, it seemed to suggest that the audience couldn’t be trusted. Believe me, we knew when it was direct address.

The play is set in the 1930s, the time of true American Gothic and amazing organic music. Spirituals, fiddles, dulcimers, drums, even just one person singing, this is one of the richest times in American music. It’s really a phenomenal mistake to play crappy spooky synths in the middle of this play.

But the rhythm of the production is impeccable. Had the actors decided to play only what was written, the show might have been ten minutes shorter, and would have lost everything in the process. Small lovely moments, a pregnant woman picking up a napkin, the making of coffee, the preservation of a pie with a piece of cheesecloth – these all show how important every inch of the property is, how precious each mouthful of food.

I’m not gonna say that this will be the best play you’re gonna see all year. But if you want to know what *I* find valuable in the theater, this play is it. I spend the first ten minutes of any production listening for the voice of the piece and then the rest of the show is translated for me, and I find that I can enjoy almost anything this way, even if it isn’t what I would want to produce. “Holy Days” speaks to me immediately, with a voice that I understand implicitly, and I’m so grateful that I got to see it.