Why We Have a Body
Green Highway Theater
at Stage Left Theatre
By Carol Burbank
Green Highway's latest production is one of the best I've seen this year. Clair Chafee's lyrical Why We Have a Body is written with intelligence and brilliantly underplayed sarcasm, and in the hands of director Janel Winter and her cast, it takes on a sexy, subversive energy that gives emotional force to the artful, intricately interwoven characters, four eccentrics searching for a home.
It's not an unusual plot--arguably every play could be reduced to this formula. But Chafee's eccentrics defy the sexist rules of conventional female characters. Psychology can't explain them or reduce them to predictability. And every time audiences might latch onto a familiar stereotype or motivation, Chafee brushes it aside with an unexpected joke, bizarre but entirely believable event, or wry literary allusion. And she mocks every sacred cow of feminism, including therapy and lesbian culture, and the patriarchy--including motherhood.
Chafee's smart, complicated characters are perfectly designed to carry the twists of plot. Lili, a private investigator and lesbian, has fallen in love with Renee, a paleontologist recently separated from her husband, a woman whose notions of evolution are simultaneously political and surreal. Lili's sister Mary, who may or may not be crazy, makes her living holding up 7-Elevens. Their mother, Eleanor, has disappeared during a trek through the Yucatan, but we meet her occasionally and hear her irreverent meditations on life, sex, and convention. Lili is the center of the play, however: her love affair and her relationship with her sister represent the story's primary emotional dynamic. Even her wandering mother is firmly in her orbit, shedding light on a bit of Lili's past or shaping our perception of her. (Eleanor's meditation on "the lesbian brain" is one of the funniest bits of truth ever skewed into an academic description.)
The four women are linked by a collage that includes slide projections, as five artists pursue themes, offer pictures of the women in the past, and identify scenes in photos of a desert, of indoor locations, of family, of sequences of ordinary actions like swimming that remind us that these intimate dialogues and meditative monologues are linked to daily life. The rapid scene changes on Rachael Howard's spare set, colored by Josh Epstein's filtered lights, offer clear transitions of mood and place, though they're sometimes burdened by props on this small stage. The dreamlike feeling of a collage prepares audiences for the script's subtle surprises.
But what really makes this play work is its innate respect for the women's integrity, so intimately brought to life. Unlike conventional dramas about women, this play never indulges in the "real conversation" so many writers feel compelled to reproduce in an unwitting tribute to television. The scenes and characters earn our full, close attention--otherwise we'll miss the gradual shifts that help them solve their restlessness and make a place for themselves.
Individually, the women's monologues are sharp, compelling, justified by their pared-down stories and personal, sometimes strange aphorisms. But taken together the monologues are deeply unsettled and unsettling. Lili, working on her files, answers the phone without speaking and listens--to silence. Eventually her sister Mary begins telling her about her roommate at the group home, pauses, tells her about her latest "celebrity dream," pauses. Lili says nothing, listening, finally speaking only to identify where her sister is, moving warily into the connection they develop over the course of the play. The Green Highway performers give each interaction, each monologue, an emotional force that brings out the comedy and philosopy of the silences and jokes scattered throughout Chafee's script.
Combining collage, sexual diversity, and unexpected, unexplained meditative moments, this play resembles Caryl Churchill's work. The characters aren't meant to be real in the caricatured sense of reality of so much American naturalism. Yet they feel like once and future friends, odd and lovable. Each has a life of her own, a strange reality that director Winter and her cast transform into an intimate, familiar relationship with the audience.
Jennifer Engstrom is at her most subtle as Lili, giving her quietly observant character emotional resonance and intelligence. When Lili listens, we lean forward as if we could hear the same thing if we just paid attention; when Lili explains what she's learned, we recognize the truth in her discoveries. She's so quiet she glows. Suzanne Farkas's Renee is a graceful, contained woman, intellectually blunt and attentive to the subtleties of language. Farkas makes Renee's growing love for Lili palpable, undiluted by homophobic hyperbole or melodramatic angst, but she never downplays the difficult adjustments the character has to make.
Carol Roscoe's Mary has a sweetness that makes her love of crime strangely shocking. Roscoe grounds Mary's waiflike, dreamy presence in a straightforward presentation; Mary is definitely a misfit but never a victim of her insanity. Like the rest of her family, she begins to create a home for herself out of her strengths, giving up the imagined glory of her martyred heroes, Joan of Arc and Virginia Woolf, for a more practical solution. Finally, Susan Ferrara is remarkable as Eleanor, making sense out of the character's complicated, poetic ramblings by keeping her on an almost entirely intellectual level; Eleanor's running commentary is like the voice at the back of one's head constantly making sense of confusion. Each character keeps the play working, moving, shifting; the story fits together like a beautiful puzzle, though each character becomes distinct and compelling.
Eleanor's insight into her own quest for herself neatly states the engine for the play: "Some of us aren't born into our lives: we have to go and look for them...as if they're taking place somewhere without us....It's quite a moving target." This sense of dislocation informs Chafee's theatrical representation of life at the margins of culture, where women learn to define themselves with humor and compromise. Everyone in this play is looking for a sense of home; fittingly, they find it by giving up on the search, accepting with a pinch of sarcasm the disasters of their lives as the place to begin. They find a challenging contentment by working with what they have.
By trusting the power of metaphor and the emotional relationships between her characters, Chafee avoids the tendency in well-meaning plays about women to elevate dysfunction to an art form. Without shrinking from her characters' flaws, she shows a way out of self-abuse and neurosis through irreverence, adaptation, and an interlaced independence. Her complex, deftly drawn women may struggle at the margins of a sexist culture, but they haven't given into subjugation. Chafee's characters trust their wildness--the source of their freedom, not their suffering. And Chafee trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to connect with her playful theatrical world, with women who are clearly, delightfully out of the ordinary and strong enough to thrive.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Liz Winter.