Past Plays

dramatizing the return of the repressed: moment @ steep theatre, 18 october 2012 & good people @ steppenwolf theatre 8 november 2012.

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake. — James Joyce, Ulysses

Both Moment, presented by the Steep Theatre, and Good People, at Steppenwolf Theatre, tell stories of Irish families (Irish American in Good People‘s case) struggling with the aftermath of some kind of traumatic event. In the case of Moment, the story turns on the reunion with his estranged family of a prodigal son who committed a heinous crime. In Good People, teenage lovers from a working-class Irish-American community in Boston are reunited after one made it out of the old neighborhood and the other did not, but the memories of old pains return with a fury. Is there something particularly relevant about the shared Irish cultural heritages of the plays in terms of the haunting role of the past in the present affairs that take place on stage? Perhaps. But more fascinating than that, to me, was the whole dramatic narrative device of the return of the repressed. Events that do not take place on the stage, that took place years prior to the plays’ temporal settings, come roaring out to shape the stories.

Very early on in both plays, these past events loom, unspoken, or perhaps in whispers and weird pauses. They are taboo ghosts that hover in the wings. Then they slowly start to gather energy, building up as the plays unfold. They begin to take on mass and weight, to crowd out the actors and the very plot taking place on the stage. Then, at last, bursting at the seams, they explode, shattering everything around them, leaving the characters to pick up the shards.

Cynthia Marker and Grace Melon in Moment. Photograph: Lee Miller.

Neither of the two plays would exist or could function dramatically without these prior events, which become secrets that cannot help but secrete themselves into the dramas. They are preceding traumas that cannot be blotted out from the proceedings. Having already occurred, they emerge anew, essential to the progress, to the very plot, of the plays themselves. Out of sequence, they create order with their disorder. The momentous “moment” in Moment turns out to have happened already before this wisp of a play even starts; it should more accurately be called Aftermath of the Moment. To make good in Good People turns out to hinge on having gotten away with being bad; its title, after one has seen the performance, is deeply ironic too since it uses the return of the repressed to probe what defines the good in people who do well in the world as compared to those who struggle to make ends meet.

Keith Kupferer and ensemble members Alana Arenas and Mariann Mayberry. Photograph: Michael Brosilow.

The futures in both these plays depend on their pasts, on what happened before they started. As the terrible memories in each production come into focus, they eventually reorganize the meaning of the dramas taking place, as if one suddenly placed a lens, cracked and shattered, over an eye that had simply grown too tired of looking away from the truths of past scars. The old wounds, never quite healed, are ripped open again for the characters and the audience to see afresh. This is not, of course, the first time plays have exploited the return of the repressed for dramatic ends, but Moment and Good People are reminders that the time spent in the theater is always shaped by the time before it, that when a world opens on a stage, another world opens up in the time before that stage and its play appeared. There are worlds within those worlds, one alway shaped by the one that came before it. But then again, as we know, when it comes to the world being a stage, what’s past is prologue.

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