For years I have argued in print that one of the great shortcomings of the American theater is its inability to portray religion and faith onstage without rhetoric, cynicism or sentiment. In Seattle, only Taproot even bother to try. I have been watching them mature for about twenty-five years now, in venues as modest as the Fairview School all the way to their fancy new, expanded digs in Greenwood. They are my neighborhood theater. I have always supported them in their mission.
However, I often find their productions challenging for me. While they are impossible to dislike, they are also difficult to admire. Their production of John Walch’s In the Book of is a case in point.
Mr. Walch has returned to the biblical Book of Ruth for his source. Boaz takes in Ruth because:
It hath fully been shewed me, all that thou hast done unto thy mother in law since the death of thine husband: and how thou hast left thy father and thy mother, and the land of thy nativity, and art come unto a people which thou knewest not heretofore. The LORD recompense thy work, and a full reward be given thee of the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings thou art come to trust.
The theme is simple enough: do right by my people and we shall do right by you. Mr. Walch’s play is a supposition: What if the hosts are not quite so accepting?
The core drama in this piece revolves around that idea and becomes a metaphor for immigration in the United States. That he chooses an Afghani immigrant to stand in for Ruth allows him also to discuss religious intolerance, but he avoids this. Religious themes lie at the heart of this piece but they are never made explicit.
That decision is probably wise, as Mr. Walch’s argument throughout the play has more than enough threads. Throughout the piece he intends to show that intolerance takes numerous forms: racism, religious intolerance, discrimination against homosexuals, and sexism. Yet the underlying problem remains essentially the same. He is also optimistic enough (and Christian enough) to believe that the answer to this is love. Not just capital-R Romantic love, but the genuine spiritual love of another being that inspires us not merely to want that person but truly to know that person as much as possible, and to understand that person, or at least to try.
I happen to agree with him. Certainly the issue itself is close to my heart. Yet the play leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Mr. Walch has dramatized certain elements of the conflict effectively. He has given all of his characters human-all-too-human qualities. Each of them is realistic, at least in conception. Each of them has some sort of conflict to resolve. The talent in the production is well-matched to the script. As an evening of theater, it is a fine production of a “well-made” play that follows all the much-vaunted rules of drama school.
I challenge those rules. I challenge the notion that conflict must always resolve, and even more that it must resolve tidily. The very idea is fatuous. The power of drama is not to resolve the issues of the day but rather to probe them. Playwrights–and audiences–go quickly off the rails when they expect artists to be cultural busboys, serving up homilies to like-minded souls the way a hostess serves up tasteless hors d’oeuvres at a lodge meeting.
Most objectionable in Mr. Walch’s play is its political naïveté. The primary conflict in the script is not Naomi’s or Bo’s or even Anisah’s: it is Gail’s. Gail kicks the hornet’s nest by stirring up public anger about immigration, largely because she is annoyed by her treatment at a fast food restaurant. Riding on the crest of this anger, she becomes, essentially, a single-issue candidate for mayor.
The problem here is not how Gail’s character is written, but rather how the mob remains an unwritten character that would, realistically, drive the plot. The script uses Gail as a synecdoche for masses of people. There is no way that this story resolves on that level. Gail’s allies are thugs. They trash the home of an honorably discharged U.S. Army veteran. One can hardly expect their behavior toward a legal immigrant to change. Their issue is not illegal immigration. Their issue is immigrants–“others”–legal or otherwise.
The playwright would have the audience believe that once Gail’s boy Bo falls in love with the illegal immigrant Anisah, she runs into a wall, a conflict within herself so disruptive that she has to confess, to come to her electorate on the night of an election and tell them that she is not who they thought she was. I can accept that. What I cannot accept is that the crowd accepts it. What is it that changes people’s minds? What is it that focuses the crowd’s palpable anger–or even diffuses it? What could possibly make enough people who did not support her before suddenly accept her revelation and not merely accept it as an apology but as a civic promise? I do not think such a force exists shy of force majeure.
If this play treated individual conflict–between individuals and their own xenophobia–fine. But this is not an individual conflict. This is a social conflict. Gail has awakened a force of hatred and violence. I do not believe such a person, driven by her own anger at a petty, perceived slight at a McDonald’s, would ever be able to control that force. Political speech and claims of idealism are not sufficient to me to tame evil. If they were, there would be no conflict in either the play or the real world.
The dogged optimism behind the script compels the drama to resolve all for the best. But it is too tidy. It offends my dramatic sense to invoke the complex and resolve with the simplistic. The bothersome notion that somehow Gail never really changes, that she has not been tarnished by the contact with the people who swept her into office, that she remains fundamentally the same person as she was at the beginning of the play, sticks in my craw. Politics does not resolve so easily, even in a small town. If anything, politics proves the truth of Poor Richard’s Almanack: lie down with dogs, get up with fleas. Gail has no fleas. She doesn’t even seem to scratch.
I do not think there are much better directors for a play like this than Scott Nolte. It is the type of play he handles deftly. He makes as good an argument for the play as I could imagine, by eliding some of the play’s weaknesses. I have rarely seen monologues in contemporary realism actually work on a stage half so well as they do here. That the production is worth arguing about is testament to his skill.
The cast behind him, too, are committed. They maintain an overall balance of humor and sadness that is the play’s most notable strength. Despite the fact that her character bothers me, Pam Nolte is always delightful to watch and imbues Gail with a quality alternately fragile and steely that allows the play to succeed as well as it does. Nolan Palmer as Bo Senior relishes his character and his enthusiasm and wit illuminate the proceedings. I’m a little less convinced of Allison Strickland as Naomi, who seems to me to miss a certain balance. Here she is, a widowed army lieutenant with signs of PTSD, yet somehow lacks simple soldierly discipline at moments. She could do far better with much less. Carolyn Marie Monroe gives a rather sensitive performance, different from when I last saw her in Marisol where I found her too strident, and Kevin Pitman is good enough, given the limits of his cryptic character.
Overall, In the Book of is an ingratiating piece. Watching the actors or admiring Mark Lund’s stage design will probably convince many people that they are in the presence of a very fine production of a very fine play. I will concede the former. I remain unconvinced of the latter. In the Book of is a pretty good play that fails where most of American drama fails. Our tradition that every drama must revolve around individuals whose actions completely determine the outcome of the drama shortchanges Americans when the subject matter is political. It reduces everything to individual behaviors and at worst heroism. But there are no heroes in politics. What a real political argument in drama needs is a way to portray political behavior effectively. Seattle theater has not found that way yet. Individually, it may charm; socially, it lacks.