TRAVELER IN THE DARK
Wisdom Bridge Theatre
at the Coronet Playhouse
Marsha Norman's Pulitzer Prize winning play 'Night, Mother posed a rather thorough defense of suicide. Go ahead and kill yourself, the play seemed to suggest, as long as you've thought it all through. Now, in Traveler in the Dark, Norman examines the hopeful flip side of her thesis that life is a personal responsibility. This time, Norman argues, it's OK for you to stop killing yourself. I suppose I should feel grateful.
The precipitating context for the play is the death of a lifelong family friend. The central character is Sam, the father of said family and the doctor who operated on, yet failed to save, Mavis, the family friend. Glory is Sam's long-suffering wife. Their son, Stephen, is a preadolescent bookworm and parental shuttlecock.
Rounding out the family unit is Sam's father, Everett, a small-town Christian minister who'll be conducting Mavis's funeral. As the family gathers in Everett's backyard before the funeral, Sam grows edgy and contentious. He can't ignore the presence of death and the way it gnaws away at life. Finally, with Everett's entrance--and the setting in place of the doctor-minister dichotomy--the stage is dressed for a far-ranging debate on the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the relative merits of faith versus profound doubt.
Act one is consumed by the backyard version of feather dusting. We hear about Mavis--how she grew up with Sam, loved him, received no love in return, and worked as his nurse for years. Sam feels guilty for having used Mavis and wasted her life. He fears he's doing the same to Glory and demands a divorce. But Glory doesn't want a divorce. And Sam doesn't want Stephen reading fairy tales. And Everett, who takes issue with Sam instructing Stephen in the basic tenets of atheism, attempts to defend God's mysterious ways, particularly the unfairness of death. In this manner, Sam, knee deep in weltschmerz, manages to irritate the hell out of evervbody. Meanwhile, Stephen runs in and out the back door like a librarian, fetching problematic reference works including Mother Goose and the Bible. Then everyone scampers off to Mavis's funeral.
Act two takes place that evening, when the backyard is softly dappled with shadows. Stephen asks Sam, "Is there a God?" but before we can settle that issue once and for all, they get into a big custody argument and Stephen tells Sam to get lost. Everett's next to tell Sam to get lost, seizing the opportunity to debate some more theology, but Sam puts an end to that by flinging the Bible on the ground. This somewhat bald piece of symbolism is quickly followed by another, as Glory enters with Sam's old letter sweater. And off they go down memory lane, Sam revealing himself--in his relationships to his mother, Mavis, and Glory--as so terrified of death and disillusionment that he holds life at an arm's distance. It's just too much, and Sam breaks down and weeps the tears of the deposed secular messiah, while Glory sweeps him up in a pieta pose. This life-affirming tableau struck, Stephen and Everett return, warm milk and cookies on their breath, for the family reunion finale.
I've lost count of just how many themes Norman takes on in Traveler in the Dark. I imagine her as some big-time wrestler, challenging all philosophical comers and throwing them to the mat in a series of body slams and dropkicks. Is there a God? What does it matter? The important thing is that you think there is. What's the meaning of life? Don't be so self-involved, you twerp. Can one avoid disillusionment by living without illusions? No, but the courage to try is admirable. How do you turn around a completely screwed-up life? Forgive yourself.
Norman balances the heaviness of her comprehensive assault on the dilemma of existence with some lighthearted comic relief. One-liners abound, and Norman uses them with such formulaic frequency that you can practically predict when she'll slice the angst with a wisecrack. Still, it doesn't matter how much lame humor Norman uses to grease the wheels since there's no tension to relieve in the first place. 'Night, Mother, pretentious and manipulative though it was, at least had the tension of Jessie's impending suicide. It was effective melodrama. Traveler in the Dark, on the other hand, has as much tension as white bread soaked in milk. There's no compelling crisis, so the audience just hangs out, waiting for Sam to unravel.
The problem is, there is no Sam. Sam is a vague point of view in search of a character. He spews acerbic witticisms, argues with anyone in sight, and generally twists on the spit of life. He's not a person; he's a condition. And as such he's intangible to empathy. Watching him unravel is like watching a toilet overflow. It's messy but you don't particularly care about the welfare of the toilet.
R. Thomas Bower's characterization of Sam is fidgety and uncertain at best. You can see it in the way Bower periodically looks out into the space over the audience's heads, as if his character were out there somewhere. Props seem strange in Bower's hands. He moves about the set, touching this and that, maybe trying to squeeze some reality out of it. No such luck.
There's not much to say about the supporting cast. Their roles, like Mavis, are only service units for the Sam-thing. Judith Bancroft plays the patient, devoted wife with the professional aplomb of a daytime serial actor. Edgar Meyer (as Everett) is, well, grandfatherly, slightly reminiscent of Captain Kangaroo, and the only one in the cast who acts like he's really in a backyard. Karl Maschek (as Stephen) is a surprisingly composed young actor, but he plays the precocious child so single-mindedly that it's hard to remember him without his hands in his pockets, striking that contemplative pose
The major flaw of the production is Edward Kaye-Martin's direction. His blocking is awkward and often motivationless. Characters meander about the stage, illustrating the set like Vanna White caressing a BRAND NEW CAR! Even when the characters come to parade arrest, they look like misplaced garden sculptures. The actors engage in only the most obvious and superficial business, and all the confrontation scenes are shaped with the same cookie cutter. If Kaye-Martin's goal was to impart some realism, some genuine emotion to Norman's metaphysical melodrama, he couldn't have steered further off course by accident.
Realism is out of the question anyway. Norman's style is sententious realism, wherein life is shrunk to fit the stage, and a slew of complex problems are resolved in a single, schmaltzy image. Because in the end, when the title is finally explained, we discover that the "traveler in the dark" comes from a largely forgotten verse from the nursery rhyme "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." This is our ray of hope, our reason to go on living. Now doesn't that little bit of night-light psychology make everything better?