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Prisoners of the Present


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Commons Theatre

I always thought history was about the past until I stumbled across The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills. In his essay, Mills distinguishes between personal troubles and social issues. If a husband and wife can't get along, they have personal trouble, Mills says. But if they live in a society where one marriage out of four ends in divorce, their private problem is actually part of a social issue. They are the victims of historical forces that are pressing on marriage and changing the shape of the institution itself. But history is probably the last place they would look for insight into what is happening to them.

"Neither the life of an individual, nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both," Mills writes. "Yet men do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change. . . . They do not possess the quality of mind essential to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and the world."

The characters in Douglas Post's new play Suffering Fools are suffering, in part, because they do not possess the "sociological imagination." They can't see beyond their own personal problems, so they wallow, self-absorbed and impotent, in private little spheres, unaware of their connections to the rest of the world. Only Katy, the bright, sensitive young wife of James, a disillusioned reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has the power to see beyond herself, and she is--wouldn't you know it?--a history teacher. She's not thrilled with her job. Teaching history to high school students is "like giving a life-drawing class for the blind," she grumbles. But history helps her see beyond the horizon of her own life, so she can get her bearings and navigate through life with a confidence the others lack.

"All events are tied together," she tells Elizabeth, her husband's 17-year-old sister, who comes to live with them one summer. "Our future is governed by the past. And our past is constantly being rewritten by the present. We move two ways at once." For Katy, human existence is summarized by the last sentence of The Great Gatsby, a book she persuades Elizabeth to read: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

The entire play takes place on the back porch of the house where James and Katy live. Arturo, the landlord, a hearing-impaired painter from Mexico City, lives upstairs. He is busy rehabbing the house and trying to get over his unhappy love affair with Cynthia, the stylish owner of the gallery that shows his paintings.

Elizabeth shows up unannounced one day, and wants to move in. She has fled her parents' home back in Washington State after setting fire to the garage. She wanted to leave home and burn her bridges behind her, the way her older brother did years before. "But my break was metaphorical," James points out.

Although, young and inexperienced, Elizabeth sizes everyone up quickly. She recognizes, for example, that her brother is a self-absorbed fool who won't lift a finger to save his failing marriage. When he says he only cares about his "sanity," she becomes exasperated with his morbid self-pity. "So a lot of things are screwed up," she screams at him. "It ain't so bad! I know that much."

James cannot accept that. By inflating his suffering, he can magnify his own significance. But that illusion of self-importance makes him feel like a failure because he hasn't been able to change the world. Katy, on the other hand, steeped in history, accepts her small role in the flow of world events. While drunk, she recites a poem comparing a lone human life to a wave that rises in the middle of the ocean, foams for a moment, and disappears, utterly unnoticed.

Post is one of Chicago's brightest playwrights. (He's a gifted composer as well, as demonstrated by his musical adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, currently running at the Theatre Building.) With Suffering Fools, he has created an uneasy alliance between two disparate styles--drama and situation comedy. This is a serious play, propelled by the angst of unhappy people. But Post relieves the misery with comic characters who seem to come directly from the TV screen. For example, Mick, a hyperactive, unemployed, overgrown hippie who hangs around the house, makes his first entrance by racing to the center of the back porch, turning his face to the heavens, and bellowing, "Do I look like an idiot!?" And Dwight, a commodities trader who lives in the basement apartment, is a reincarnation of Ted Baxter, the pompous newscaster from Mary Tyler Moore. Such characters seem totally out of place in such a play, but like a composer adept at making discordant chords seem harmonious, Post blends them into a story, allowing Suffering Fools to be serious and somber without becoming insufferable.

Post achieves this blend only with the help of some fine performances. Greg Bryant is all frenzy and innocence as Mick, whose later success serves as an ironic counterpoint to the strivings of everyone else. Bruce Barsanti is hilariously bombastic and boastful as Dwight. And Terry Kohut gives a heartbreaking performance as Arturo, the gentle, sensitive painter Katy secretly loves. He speaks in sign language throughout, with his words translated by Katy, but when he confronts Cynthia about leaving him, he bursts into shouts that sound like the cries of a wounded animal. The effect is chilling.

In an exceptionally well-balanced performance, Kathy Kirk captures Katy's intelligence and sensitivity as well as the sharpness she uses to mask her shyness. And Julie Ganey deftly portrays Elizabeth as a teenager trying to appear tougher and smarter than she really is. But Eric Simonson seems to drown in James's pompous and overblown speeches. That's understandable--whenever he speaks, James sounds like he's reading from a journal he kept as a teenager. ("I am quite lost. Having come to the conclusion that it really is best not to feel strongly about anything, I find that I am more than a little disconnected from the world at large.") The guy is a writer, so maybe he would talk like this, but such speeches are hard to read without sounding ridiculous. To avoid that, Simonson delivers them without affect, emphasizing James's depression. But this makes the speeches difficult to absorb.

Suffering Fools is part of the Commons Theatre's new-plays festival, and like many new plays, it doesn't appear to be quite finished. The characters are vivid, and caught in a moment of transition that generates dramatic tension. But the play is as myopic as some of its characters--it focuses too intently on personal troubles, and never explores the issues to which those troubles are connected. Like the characters themselves, the play would benefit from a bit of sociological imagination.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Martin.

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