Monday, April 10, 2006

mission accomplished

Good news: I no longer need to work on my third novel, which I’d been having trouble with anyway.

Let me explain: In semi-celebration of Stephanie’s birthday, a group of her actor friends and I went to see one of their fellow actor friends, Liam Christopher O’Brien (they just call him “Liam,” though), in a dress rehearsal of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at the Geffen Playhouse.

I went in expecting to see a great cast (Len Cariou, Neil Patrick Harris, Laurie Metcalf and of course Liam) in some-play-by- one-of-those-acclaimed-old-white-guys. But I came away wondering why Death of a Salesman is performed to death whereas All My Sons languishes, the phrase conjuring up vague soap opera images.

Set in the late 1940s, the play opens with the eerie, lightning-quick image of a tree blowing down in a storm as a woman in a white nightgown watches stoically. We soon learn that the woman is Kate Keller (Metcalf), who refuses to accept the disappearance of her oldest son in World War II (the tree was planted in his honor). Her insistence that Larry is alive makes life harder for her husband Joe (Cariou) and her younger son, Chris (Harris), who wants to marry Larry’s former sweetheart.

All of which sounds like one of those how-families-deal-with-loss stories. Not to belittle how families deal with loss, but there are so many books, plays, movies, etc. about family dynamics—bitter parents, rebellious kids, long-kept secrets. It’s all real stuff, but I’ve gotten tired of stories that seem to have no repercussions beyond one family’s living room, however “universal” that living room may feel.

That’s why, a few months ago, I started building a book in my head that would somehow lift the family saga onto the world stage. It would be about how the nuclear becomes global, how what is little affects and is affected by what is big, how protecting your immediate family can mean destroying your human family.

But I’ve been having plot issues, as I always do. Plus, like I said, I’ve been busy being a troublemaking, gossipy, girl-crazy 11-year-old.

So I was pleasantly surprised at the turn the play quickly took: Joe Keller, we learn, was accused of manufacturing and knowingly shipping faulty airplane parts that led to the deaths of 20 American soldiers. His business partner took the fall for it. The neighbors still whisper and wonder what the real story is, and the audience is invited to do the same: Did Joe do something bad to humanity to protect his family’s future (including the factory Chris is set to inherit)? And are those two entities—humanity and family—really so separate?

It would be nice if George Bush would ask himself similar questions. In the meantime, which I expect will be a long time, it’s both fortunate and unfortunate that some smart old-white-guy playwright has said what I wanted to say—with humor and plot twists and star-crossed love to boot.

I’m frequently more inspired by mediocre work than by brilliant work, because when I read Colson Whitehead or Toni Morrison or Michael Cunningham, I just want to throw up my hands—they’ve already written amazing stuff that’s just, like, about everything. About friggin’ life, you know? (This is actually how my brain starts talking—like an angry stoner. Which makes me even less confident in my own powers of articulation.)

But one thing that All My Sons doesn’t have is cats. And my novel will feature lots of cats. So maybe there’s hope yet.


Schrodinger's Kitten said...

All my sons is a great play! Seen it twice - each time I felt it was not given justice. Sounds like you found a great performance.

And I think there should be a cat in the tree. Especially at the end. The cat dies from a gunshot. This only makes sense if you've seen it - no spoilers.

Tracy Lynn said...

I think the sense of angry stonerism that you describe is a side effect of reading incessantly and well. For a long time, I wrote only for myself and destroyed everything I ever wrote, feeling that, although the sensation of putting pen to paper was enough to satisfy me, it would not be anywhere near enough to stack up to what I knew COULD be done with those same tools.

Can't WAIT to see your piece, you can never have too many cats.

Cheryl said...

Sara: I expect to see an all-female production of All My Sons. Get to work.

Tracy: Even though I'm easily intimidated, I've got enough of a writerly ego to keep giant boxes of my past bad writing. You gotta believe in your own genius-ness.

Nance said...

Cheryl, I am from the same hometown as Toni Morrison and was privileged to meet and talk with her some time ago. She writes of our town in her novel "The Bluest Eye." She is truly a writer's writer--so lyrical and gifted in her prose. In the meantime, I am trying mightily to forgive you for not crediting the recently deceased genius ARTHUR MILLER by name as the playwright for "All My Sons." Sigh. But it's hard. Caps lock SIGH.

Cheryl said...

I did credit him by name (it's right up there in paragraph two!), as well as by the affectionate nickname "old-acclaimed-white-guy." But apparently I should have called him "dead-acclaimed-white-guy." I'm embarrassed to admit I didn't actually know he'd died--I thought he had, but the Geffen website made it sound like he was alive. My out-of-the-loop-ness strikes again. Well, I will miss him, and I'm glad that Toni's still with us.

thelastnoel said...

As a drama major, I'd known about All My Sons, but never saw it. Now's my chance. Why don't you name your next project: All My Cats.

Cheryl said...

Noel, you should totally see it, for Neil Patrick Harris' shirtless-ness if nothing else.

All My Cats. Brilliant.

Schrodinger's Kitten said...

Wait - Doogie is shirtless? I clearly missed that part of the post.

let's GO GO GO people!

Claire said...

what a great cast. Cool.