By Mark Lamos, Playhouse Artistic Director
photo by Kathleen O'Rourke
One of the perks of my job as artistic director is a chance to watch other directors in action on productions that we're producing at the Playhouse, but that I'm of course not directing myself. So I looked forward to spending some time in our rehearsal hall in New York during a rehearsal of our upcoming production, Joan Didion's wonderful The Year of Magical Thinking. Nicholas Martin, the production's superb director (last season's production of The Circle) sat quietly observing actress Maureen Anderman work through the last few pages of the play in a run thru.
As I tip-toed in, the room was quiet except for Maureen's voice; the air in the room was still and bright, not only because of the windows admitting rare New York Spring sunlight, but also because of a feeling, a sense one got upon entering that the transformative power of theater was at work. I listened to the last minutes of the play, so filled with clarity and thoughtfulness, and suddenly felt something on my cheek. It was a tear. I don't know where it came from, because there is nothing about The Year of Magical Thinking that is manipulative or sentimental. Was it the heartbreaking beauty in the clarity of the thoughts? The still power of Maureen's unflinching approach to the material? The attentive, almost religious, feeling of the room? I don't know. Rehearsals transform rehearsal rooms just as potently as performances transform theaters filled with an audience. It's always moved me, this unique power of theater. And I hope I never understand its mystery.
I'd recently returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, where we got a chance to see many examples of spectacular Flemish Primitives, paintings made during the late Middle Ages and early northern Renaissance: the subjects are saints, annunciations, adorations, and the like. Each great work, especially those by Memling or Van Eyck, was more intoxicating than the last because each induced in the viewer a kind of peace, a feeling of quiet exaltation, not so much at the religious subject but rather because of the perfection achieved by the artist. My eyes welled up on a few occasions there, as well, and it wasn't due to jet lag. I'm not religious and I don't believe in God, but these paintings created an atmosphere of Humanism perfected, their painstakingly shimmering surfaces serene and potent and piercingly still. The faces of protective angels, madonnas holding very grown-up looking babies, wrinkled older donors, knights, etc., are all impassive, unknowable, keeping their inner lives, pain, adoration under snow white skin and flawlessly depicted garments of lavish richness. I thought of those beautiful, mysterious faces as I listened to Maureen think through Joan Didion's exhilarating words about the 'magical' discoveries she made in the twelve months after the death of her husband: about the act of living as a hopeless quest for the knowable, and the realization that our narratives arrive at no expected conclusions. And that this fact is the bottom line of existence for all of us, saints, knights, artistic directors, corporate bankers, mothers of teenagers, cooks, cleaners, kings, presidents, and Tibetan monks. And though it is shared by all of us, and continually experienced by all of us, it is never learned and needs to be experienced anew.
I can't wait to watch and listen to more of this play in what I feel is going to be a really important production for us and for anyone lucky enough to witness Maureen and Nicholas's work on it.