Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Opinion

Live theater is a mind's great refuge

When the curtain goes up, so do my spirits. Does this happen to you, fellow theatergoers? Are you innerved when the stage is unwrapped like a gift or the stage lights suddenly flash on? What's to come may be more treacle than treat, more insufferable than soaring, still I arrive at that first moment of a play's opening with palpable anticipation. Most of the time I'm not disappointed. Live theater is a great escape.

Having just come through a bruising national election when it felt at times like the future of the Enlightenment was at stake, there is nothing like finding refuge and diversion in a darkened theater and its typically too-cramped seats. Theater is one of life's great pleasures and one of the only opportunities a rationalist has to suspend disbelief. Much more than movies, an affecting play or musical can insinuate itself into my thoughts and emotions and reside there like a permanent houseguest, a welcome one.

It has been more than a year since I saw Good People, a play about working class struggles and the role of chance in life's outcomes by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. But I still reflect on actor Frances McDormand's Tony Award-winning portrayal of Margie Walsh, a single mother from "Southie" Boston teetering on the edge of poverty after losing her crappy cashier's job. Why do we need a sturdy social safety net? Why do workers need more power on the job? Why do we need to guarantee living wages? Margie's why.

I caught Good People when it was on Broadway. But one of the nicest surprises since moving out of New York decades ago has been the exceptional theater available almost anywhere.

Currently a stirring revival of 1776 is playing at the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota. It was my first live performance since the election, and a timely reminder of that pivotal period of American history from May 8 through July 4, 1776, when political arguments weren't over how to govern a prosperous nation but whether that nation should come into being at all. Then, the great ideological compromise wasn't how to attain fiscal balance but how to address slavery, the South's immoral addiction. This left-right political divide was more consequential than any conceivable today, yet it was set aside at the nation's founding in the interests of unity. I'd say the right wing owes us one.

The Sarasota production has everything a theater lover could want including immense architectural sets representing the main chamber of the Pennsylvania State House — known today as Independence Hall. There, the Second Continental Congress is soon arrayed to denounce John Adams' quixotic quest for American independence from England. "Sit down, John" they sing in unison, as Adams agitates for "independency."

This brilliant work by Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards originally opened on Broadway in 1969 but shows no wear. It seamlessly alternates between being moving and funny, even generating a surprising soupcon of anxiety over how things will resolve, considering what we know. I remember being enthralled when I saw it on Broadway during its 1997 revival. The Asolo's production has reminded me why.

I've seen hundreds of shows and can't remember looking at a pair of theater tickets and thinking that I'd rather not go. Maybe it's genetic. My parents, both 79 years old this year, use their Manhattan apartment as little more than a launching pad for their weekly quotient of three or more live performances. After Superstorm Sandy hit their East Side neighborhood, cutting off power, heat and cellphone service, they declined help to relocate to a place with all of those. They had tickets. Sandy came ashore on a Monday. By Wednesday they were at a Broadway matinee.

Following my parents' lead, I have subscribed for years to the solidly excellent American Stage Theatre and the dazzlingly inventive freeFall Theatre, both in St. Petersburg. I'm a born audience member, always looking forward to the next journey into the creative spirit when the house lights dim.

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