It used to be a cliche that young artists wanted to write The Great American Novel. Then people began to say the novel was dead, and young artists were trying to make The Great American Movie instead. Embedded in all those capitalized nouns, however, is an unanswered question.
Doughboys from World War One and GI Joes from World War Two had various answers to that question. Each answer may have been different but all of them proceeded from a fundamental assumption: America was a homogeneous nation. Even after the rise of the hyphenated identity in the 1970s and 1980s, there was still a guarantee that the last piece of that hyphenated word was American. The nation-state had begun to recognize the origins of the ingredients in the recipe of its great melting pot, but the pot remained, as did the melting.
After the events of September 2001, I am not sure that pot even exists anymore. If it does, it is cracked even more severely than the Liberty Bell, and the contents are bleeding out. For all of the presumptuous discussions of “community” that are flotsam and jetsam on the airwaves, Americans have moved from discussions of national identity to ever-more-atomic levels of self-identification. Boundaries are no longer physical, or even political, but tribal and digital.
The conflict at the heart of Jim Moran’s play Refugees in the Garden City seems to be a very tribal conflict: white supremacists vs. “Muslim” immigrants (never mind that they aren’t Muslim). It’s also digital: the impetus behind the drama is a series of electronic death threats. But there’s another conflict, too, less obvious.
The protagonists flee crazy America and crazy Americans to the safety of Canada and the Edenic setting of Victoria. As they try to settle into their tiny, cribless hotel room with their newborn, they talk about the nostalgia that the wife has for Victoria and the tourist wonder shared by her husband, complete with descriptions of wax figures, the Butchart Gardens, horse-drawn carriages, afternoon tea at the Empress, and every other thing well-known to any native Seattleite as the basis for their belief in thinking Canada is a cool place.
Turns out, it isn’t.
The body of the play features the two protagonists unpacking their personal and interpersonal baggage, giving the audience a chance to fill in the narrative gaps. The denouement leaves them both stranded in Victoria wondering what to do next. Mr. Moran’s point, if I can reduce it substantially, is not that America is awful and Canada is great but rather that people fleeing from the present into nostalgia tend to doom themselves. Just as few Americans ever answer the question “Who’s America?” even fewer of them even ask the question “Who’s Canada?” The grass is indeed greener on the other side of the border, and he who does not fight and runs away lives to run another day from the very same thing.
I’m curious about the dual casting for the play for a number of reasons, but the primary one to me is that Mr. Moran’s play seems like it contains a rather substantial potential for comic (or at least tragicomic) interpretation that was not the focus of the version I saw. The “Blue Cast” version, with the fabulous Jay Athalye and wonderful Kira Dorrian takes a rather evenly serious approach to the script. There is lightness, as always in a Jim Moran play, but primarily it feels like sitting in a chair with a vise slowing crushing in.
Mr. Athalye of course is perfect for this approach. His skill in finding moments of pure ridiculousness within a morass of desperate actions remains spectacular to watch. His skill at physical action, too, has grown even greater since I first saw him years ago. I always look forward to seeing him on a stage.
Ms. Dorrian is far more familiar to my ears than to my eyes, but that merely means that my eyes are much more deprived. No one will ever question her remarkable gift for making music out of text, but she is also blessed with a magnetic stage presence, and makes intelligent choices with her interpretation of Rhiannon, never quite as light as the character wants, never quite so desperate as the character thinks. It is very refreshing, and very assured.
Still, I can imagine director David Hsieh treating this more like a light comedy, too. Some may say in principle that would make the play less effective, but I disagree. Comedy is serious, too. Indeed the ending alone is close enough to the ending of a dozen satires from playwrights all the way from Aristophanes to Dario Fo. It’s a question of handling, and I am certain this is a crew that can handle pretty much anything.
Like The Great American Novel or Great American Film, it is foolish, I think, to ask for The Great American Play that will magically revive both drama and theater in our rather self-indulgent, video-distracted nation. Anyway, I doubt this is the purpose of art. All I ask is for artists to keep trying to grapple with interesting questions and offer not solutions but insights. No single play is going to answer the age-old question “Who’s America?” But one might as well ask. Refugees in the Garden City is a solid question.