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. Likewise, the instant in “August Osage County” when Amy Morton said to Jeff Perry, “It’s over, isn’t it?” and burst into tears. Each of these performers—including the one whose name I don’t know—have ever since been in the ranks of Actors Whose Work Breached Whatever Defenses I’m Supposed To Have.
Years ago, when William L. Petersen did “In The Belly of the Beast” at Wisdom Bridge, Richard Christiansen’s review included the line, “As I drove home from the theater, I had to pull over to the side of the road to weep.” Everyone made merciless fun of him and of the line, but critics who aren’t stagestruck like that at least a couple of times a year should get another job.
I’ve occasionally been charged with letting emotional responses to productions supersede or interfere with the intellectual effort necessary to address what their producers had in mind. But in fact my intellectual side hardly ever turns off, and is almost always able to evaluate what a director had in mind and why it succeeded or failed. I’m actually looking for theatrical occasions that will stun my busy brain into silence, so I can hear the truths only theater can speak.
We go to the theater for entertainment, sure, and relaxation; but those we can find in lots of other places. We go to the theater particularly to experience life through the bodies of actual people exposed to circumstances we couldn’t otherwise imagine or tolerate, and to accompany those people through an emotional wringer and come out safe the other side. If that doesn’t happen, it hardly matters what the artists intended. And if it does, we understand why the Greeks regarded theater as a form of worship.
Here’s to another year of those life-changing moments. Here’s to another year of being stagestruck.