So here’s what I’m looking for when I go to the theater: that one moment when I’m not suspending disbelief, but simply not experiencing disbelief at all. Those rare moments occur when an actor somehow slices through the gauzy curtain hung between his reality and ours, so that what we’re watching is not a simulacrum of life but life itself. For me, the jolt that accompanies such an experience is sexual, carrying the essential charge of life: love as against death. No wonder the Puritans shut down the playhouses: when they feared theater contributed to the stoking of passion, they were absolutely right.
A handful of these occasions come to mind. Several years ago somehow two companies ended up presenting "The Lion in Winter" at the same time. Both productions were capable, neither inspiring—until the instant in one of them when Richard bolted across the stage to prevent his mother from knifing herself and landed sobbing in her lap. Another was in an otherwise journeyman piece called "My Old Lady," when Gene Weygandt managed to infuse the line, "Don't get close to me. I poison everything I touch" with so much raw truth that it seemed indecent and voyeuristic to watch the embrace that followed.