Confronting the Paradoxes of Faith in EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL at CATF

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Confronting the Paradoxes of Faith in EVERYTHING IS WONDERFUL at CATF

Paul DeBoy, Lucky Gretzinger, Jason Babinsky, Lexi Lap, Jessica Savabe, and Hollis McCarthy

Paul DeBoy, Lucky Gretzinger, Jason Babinsky, Lexi Lap, Jessica Savabe, and Hollis McCarthy

Posted on July 16, 2017

Most religious communities are closed to some extent. Most religious communities preach benevolence toward fellow-humans. But the more closed a community is, the harder becomes for that community to live up to the benevolence it preaches, particularly towards apostates. Protection of the community boundaries and benevolence towards apostates are almost irreconcilable things. Not only that, but solicitude for community boundaries may lead to too-ready reconciliation with those who have violated its standards but stayed within those boundaries.

In Everything Is Wonderful, featured in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, playwright Chelsea Marcantel has dramatized these paradoxes in the context of an Amish community. On the evidence of the play, the Amish are generally peaceful and forgiving; indeed, we are introduced at the outset to Eric (Jason Babinsky), a young outsider who through negligence has done a terrible wrong to the community, and comes seeking forgiveness and healing, and receives plenty of both.

The treatment we witness Eric receiving will provide a striking counterpart or counterpoint, as the case may be, to the community’s treatment of two other young violators of its standards, Miri (Jessica Savage) and Abram (Lucky Gretzinger). The difference in the treatment they receive is partly owing to the nature of Miri’s and Abram’s respective transgressions, but also depends upon how they relate to the community’s boundaries.

Miri’s transgression is the same as her status; she has become apostate, and, having left the community, she has been excommunicated, so that she cannot sit at her family’s dinner table or sleep under its roof or touch them, a penalty which is as keenly felt by her family as by her. Yet, as we eventually learn, she left only when those community boundaries failed to provide her meaningful protection or support in the light of a wrong done to her. Abram’s failing is not revealed at once, but he has always stayed within the group, and has in consequence received the community’s absolution in a way that seems far too easy.

In short, we are witnessing a situation where community sanctions, perhaps rational in the abstract, lead to irrationally unequal consequences that are also out of step with community ideals. Dramatically, this conflict cries out for someone to defend the community, to justify its ways. Yet for better or for worse, the community, the antagonist which has created this ethical mess, is not directly represented. Instead, there are only the three members of Miri’s estranged family: sister Ruth (Lexi Lapp), mother Esther (Hollis McCarthy), and father Jacob (Paul DeBoy). When we see the community meting out its inequitable justice, we see it happening only through them, and they too are victimized by it. They do what they do simply because it is what is laid down in the Ordnung, the group’s unwritten rules. It is a code as unequal to the tests presented to it as is the code of military justice which forces Captain Vere to hang a virtuous young man in Billy Budd. And the Ordnung is just as unapproachable and unchangeable in its abstractness as that code.

The story here is, thank goodness, not Billy Budd; the conclusion will not prove quite so bleak. However, that statement must be followed immediately by the acknowledgment that it is not easy to figure out what happens in the conclusion. I spoke with a number of members of the audience about it, and none of us could work it out. The script makes the obscurity a little clearer, but there seem to be limits. Throughout the play, there have been shifts back and forth between the present and the past, and part of the key to the end is that at that point present and past occupy the stage together. Things happen in that space that probably could not literally happen anywhere in the “real” fictional timeline. Those things create the feeling of resolution, but perhaps without the play having fully earned it.

Clearly, what the characters need is an overthrowing of the Ordnung, or at least the insertion of some exceptions to it, so that they can effectively forgive each other. Nothing short of that will earn the feeling that the ending strives for. And it does not seem as if that has actually occurred in the world of the play, notwithstanding a sort of transfiguration of the entire ensemble in the show’s final moments.

In reacting to the play as a whole, therefore, we need to take a step back from the conclusion. And fortunately we can. We do not need the last few minutes, or at least not this version of them. If the resolution enacted before us is wanting, the sketching out of the problem is beautifully done. We have been brought to the point where we can see clearly how religion has let its adherents down, and how the way past that disappointment lies in human connection, moral accountability, and forgiveness. Whether these particular characters achieve it is not that important.

The play may be set in an Amish world, but dramas with many similarities could be set in Catholic or Jewish or Muslim worlds, and probably among most other faiths. I do not read Marcantel as indicting religion as such; she shows us how much groundedness and understanding faith gives, and not just what faith frequently takes away. Every faith needs, and has, its own Ordnung, but in order to live fully and well, Marcantel seems to be saying, believers will always need to transcend it. And then, as the play hints, believers will also need to return to it. Every faith journey will thus be a work in progress, forever.

In keeping with the universality of this message, the action is played out in front of a sky-like scrim (see the picture above) that seems to locate the action as much in the midst of eternity as in Amish country. The costumes (by Therese Bruck) carry the burden of specificity. There is a pleasing contrast between the bright colors but simple lines of the women’s garb and those of the “English” characters, Eric and, at times, Miri. It may be a world we do not know but one most of us will find intriguing, and which, for a couple of hours, we are allowed to navigate imaginatively.

The performances, of course, are superb. I particularly appreciated DeBoy’s rendering of the father, conflicted but steadfast, and Savage’s Miri, steadfast in her own way, acknowledging the difficulty of her demand upon her family and her faith, but not backing down when it seems to be rejected. I did have a problem with Babinsky’s reactions; his character is partly written to provide comic relief, but at times it felt as if he was breaking character to laugh at his own lines, sitcom-style. But that, one assumes, was a directorial choice. And Hollis McCarthy did much to convey the mother’s heartbroken restiveness.

If I did not entirely approve of the way the play was constructed, and obviously particularly the ending, I think most viewers would agree with me that it was nevertheless thought-provoking, often beautiful and in a quiet way inspiring. Like every other play in this year’s Festival, it should not be missed.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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The Bronx is Up – and Dancing to Hip Hop – in CATF’s WELCOME TO FEAR CITY

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The Bronx is Up – and Dancing to Hip Hop – in CATF’s WELCOME TO FEAR CITY

Dyllon Burnside

Dyllon Burnside

Posted on July 15, 2017

Welcome to Fear City, premiering at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, shambles along amiably, looking as if it has no more greater object than to be a loose black family dramedy set forty years ago. That is, until it dawns on you that the play’s ambition is to be nothing less than a snapshot of a time and place where a lot of things happened, and one vitally important thing, hip hop, came into being.

The other things that happened, as depicted by playwright Kara Lee Corthron, included the tightening of the financial screws on lower middle-class black families in the Bronx, and the shutting down of economic opportunity, with attendant impacts upon living arrangements, health and emotional well-being. The other things included urban decay and what was euphemistically called urban renewal, which focused largely on the destruction of buildings, i.e. the cityscape within which black families were stiill trying to live their lives. The other things included the rise of aggressive policing of minority young men, via endless stops and searches.

We see all these things in the lives of: E, pictured above (Dyllon Burnside), a young man with underemployed mechanical aptitude, afflicted by gay impulses he does not want to deal with, and by the urge to make some kind of mark in a worse-than-indifferent world; his mother Wanda (Cherene Snow), who can’t safely take in her family because of Section 8 housing rules but does it anyway, and whose respiratory problems mandate a visit to the ER, but whose finances will not permit it; his sister Neesy (Adrian Kiser), academically gifted but not smart in love, who had followed a man to California only to be ditched, and has now stumbled home to support herself with topless waitressing; and his friend Cheky (Vincent Ramirez), whose distinction is that he has a “J-O-B” as a UPS deliveryman, but lives for the block parties where he serves as a DJ.

Their joint frustrations wind them all up tighter and tighter like the mainspring of a clock, until they must find release. We see E slipping into nefarious activities connected with “urban renewal,” as he is observed sardonically by a Rat (Yaegel T. Welch), and fighting to have his rap poetry attended to (his delivery is not very good). We see Neesy flirting with another potential Mr. Wrong. We see Wanda’s health declining. And we see Checky scrappily going on assembling his career, sparking dance parties with stolen electronic gear. Meanwhile, fire is literally consuming the neighborhood.

And in the midst of all this, we start seeing performances of this new rhyme chanted over rhythm tracks as the ensemble dances. We can feel how this new artistic form responds to the pressure building up inside each of them. The power of this then-aborning musical style is irresistibly conveyed at the end of the first act, in a performance that works especially well in the confined space of a small theater-in-the-round. This is a play, not a musical, but this proto-hip hop performance is recognizably a first-half closer.

The play would work fine if it stopped there. The second act is not as strong, and, comparing what was on stage with what was in the script, it becomes apparent that that act is still more of a work in progress. Among the defects is a lengthy transfiguration sequence, where the ensemble devolves first into a sort of enactment of white racist tropes, a minstrel show version of themselves, and then (if I’m understanding correctly) a sort of surreal essential version of themselves, confused by gibberish talk. Then there is a bring-to-date on the characters, who have turned out mostly all right after the scarifying events of 1977. Finally, there is a kind of flash forward in which subjects like Ferguson and Black Lives Matter are conjured up, leading to a moment where one character exhorts the audience to declare its solidarity with raised fists — and we do. And we walk out happy because we did.

Two observations about that raised-fist moment. First, as already described, it is the culmination of some sloppy playwriting. Second, it still works. The crowd with whom I saw the play, mostly senior and white like me, would not seem like an obvious target to be solicited for the gesture, nor an obvious demographic for cooperating and joining in, especially when (to convey the request) the fourth wall is broken (which in itself produces awkwardness). But even through the chaos, the show has built up a momentum and an appeal, especially through late iterations of song and dance, that transcends everyone’s identity. At that moment we all come from the Bronx. Also, we are crazy about those characters, and want to say a rousing goodbye to them.

I hope the sloppiness gets fixed, though; Corthron should lose the transfiguration and the deliberate gibberish talk near the end. I would also lose the Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter material, which is worthwhile but badly anachronistic in a play intended to capture a moment forty years back.

Instead, I’d urge Corthron to focus on her own title, or perhaps better on what lies behind it. There are two different kinds of fear referenced in the play. One is the fear that informed a 1975 pamphlet further described by Corthron in the program notes entitled Welcome to Fear City: A Survivor’s Guide for Visitors. It was handed out to airport visitors. As the Rat summarizes: “Some corn-fed meatball from Iowa is in Fear City limits just by goin’ to Broadway to see fuckin’ Annie.” Call it white fear for short. It is overblown and foolish. Then there’s the black variety: E’s fear of asking a boss for a raise, and his fear of doing too much in his questionable cooperation with urban renewal, and Wanda’s fear of going to the ER. Where exactly Corthron is going with this theme, however, is not clear, because black fear is not always unreasonable, and often responds reasonably to the objective situation.

If the play is going to aspire to be more than amiable family drama, it should head deeper into that subject – or perhaps into the subject that the label “fear” is a not-quite-successful-yet stab at naming. The four central characters all end up transcending something by the end. Maybe fear is the wrong word for it. The transcendence (not the word) is what matters and what we admire. I am certain that the characters’ refusals to give up on themselves or on the Bronx, expressed in but not limited to the music, is what the audience was identifying with when it raised its collective fist. (Not that most of us would have disagreed with the proposition that Black Lives do indeed Matter, I should add.)

So, yes, it needs work. But there are sometimes shows that need work that deserve your love already. This is one of them.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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A Gripping Struggle for Souls: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT at CATF

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A Gripping Struggle for Souls: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT at CATF

Paul DeBoy and Lexi Lapp

Paul DeBoy and Lexi Lapp

Posted on July 13, 2017

We have witnessed the scene in various ways at various times, but the essentials do not differ. There is always a table. There is always uncomfortable lighting. The inquisitor always has the full powers of the state at his back. The prisoner answering the questions is often restrained, sometimes under torture, usually in fear for his or her life. And, given the situation and the nature of the prisoner, the outcome is usually a foregone conclusion. The state will win the legal contest, and the prisoner will pay with life or freedom.

But on the stage in front of us, the prisoner and the interrogator are primarily fighting over something other than the prisoner’s survival, and for that reason the odds in the contest are not as lopsided as they may seem. The fight is over souls: not only the prisoner’s but the interrogator’s. And from a dramatic standpoint, this is the real struggle.

At the Contemporary American Theater Festival, that struggle is joined anew in David Meyers’ play We Will Not Be Silent, concerning the last three days of Sophie Scholl (Lexi Lapp), one of the leaders of the White Rose, a student group that opposed Hitler and leafleted in 1943 against Hitler’s war. Her antagonist the interrogator is named Kurt Grunwald (Paul DeBoy), although it would appear that he is based on a real-life Gestapo investigator named Robert Mohr. Like the historical Mohr, Grunwald apparently tries to save Scholl by having her inform on her brother. Perhaps unlike Mohr, Grunwald also tries to give Sophie a chance to go free by letting others take all the responsibility, though Grunwald fully and correctly anticipates that she is unlikely to agree to saving her skin in that way.

And this is the interesting twist: we do not know what kind of game Grunwald is really playing. On the evidence presented to this point in the play, when he offers these outs to Sophie, he might be serious or he might just be trying to provoke acts of self-sacrifice which will have the not-so-incidental effect of more firmly incriminating her. And that ambiguity as to Grunwald’s strategy betokens an ambiguity about his motives, indeed about what he is going through. He claims he is not in the Gestapo, but that cannot be correct, because no one but a Gestapo man could have had the authority to conduct this examination, and the interrogator upon whom he is based was in the Gestapo. So why should anything he says can be believed?

Is Grunwald nonetheless really a secret admirer of Sophie’s heroism, unwilling to emulate her simply because he lacks her courage, or are his professions of empathy with her situation just a secret policeman’s trick? Does he know the answer himself? The author does not tip his hand on this dilemma until the last three pages of the script.

The genius of the play is how this ambiguity is handled up until those last three pages. There is a certain progression in such dramatic interrogations. We know it from examples like the interrogations of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, and Cromwell’s examinations of Anne Boleyn’s doomed associates in Mike Poulton‘s dramatization of Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall, and the Mossad dialogues with Adolf Eichman in Evan Weiner’s Captors, Danforth’s interrogation of John Proctor in The Crucible, and a thousand movies. It typically if not invariably includes stages like denial by the accused, apparent exoneration, partial confession, attempts to win over the interrogator, self-doubt of the interrogator, promises of leniency attached to unacceptable conditions, existential crises on the part of the prisoner, and finally a reckoning, in which we learn which of the two has prevailed. The listed stages all occur here. And in every one but the last, the ambiguity is preserved and grows richer, because Grunwald pressing Scholl for either a confession or a conviction could plausibly stem from a desire to make an example of her for the Third Reich, or a martyr of her for those who find the Third Reich horrifying.

There are indeed moments when Grunwald is horrifying. DeBoy, a much larger and more mature actor, uses his stature to full advantage when shouting at Lapp’s Scholl; by contrast, she looks quite as young as the historical Scholl and quite a bit more fragile, a fragility that only increases as the character grows more isolated, dehydrated, sleepy, and confused. Even so, we cannot be sure whether Grunwald’s menace conceals a secret complicity, and if so, whether he realizes this himself.

Ultimately, just as the play establishes, Scholl went to the guillotine a day after a brief trial. But her memory has been kept very much alive in today’s Germany. So in real life she fulfills the exemplary function of martyrdom; in the world of the play, however, it seems most likely that her example will be forgotten. That risk of oblivion heightens the existential question confronting her: if by betraying her principles she could prolong her life, as opposed to adhering to her principles, dying, and having no impact at all, which choice should she make? And this is not just her existential question: It is his as well. It would appear that Grunwald has made the opposite choice. But has he? At the very end of the play, that question is reopened.

The theatergoer will not resolve these moral and logical dilemmas entirely, but will leave the theater breathless from identifying and working through them as far as he or she can. DeBoy and Lapp do an elegant job bringing them to life, and Ed Herendeen’s sharp direction keeps them alive.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Jason Babinsky and Jessica Savage

Jason Babinsky and Jessica Savage

Posted on BroadwayWorld July 12, 2017

In his recent memoir Dispatches from Pluto, British writer Richard Grant, trying to suss out race relations in the Mississippi Delta region, proposes this formula: “[I]n the South whites didn’t mind how close blacks got, so long as they didn’t get too high socially and economically, and … in the North, it was the other way around…” The town of Byhalia, a poor exurb of Memphis, lies one county over from the Delta, and the play to which Evan Linder has given the town’s name seems to reflect those same Delta racial dynamics. This might be surprising, because in the annals of civil rights struggles, Byhalia is mainly known for a traumatic moment in 1974 when a police killing of a young black man there ignited lengthy boycotts and protests, referenced in the play. But, at least in 2014, the time of the play, things are much more nuanced, and enough water has flowed under the bridge so that a white character does not even recognize the name of the young black man who was shot.

Byhalia, Mississippi, being presented as part of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, depicts instead a place where blacks and whites can be close friends or lovers without anyone commenting on it much except when things go really wrong. It’s not giving away a great deal to say what goes wrong here, since that cat escapes from the bag in the second scene: interracial adultery leading to an unexpectedly biracial child. And a good deal of the play is given over to what one might call the geographical question: whether the white mother should even attempt to raise such a child in Byhalia. But the bigger question is marital: can the white mother who cheated and her estranged husband (who cheated first) reunite despite all the hurt – and can that husband accept fatherhood under these circumstances? The comic tone throughout suggests how these questions will be resolved, but, as in most romantic stories, getting there is the main fun.

These are not generic romantic characters. The wife, Laurel (Jessica Savage), describes herself as a “redneck momma,” and the pejorative label certainly fits her husband Jim (Festival favorite Jason Babinsky) as well. Their story is race- and class-specific. Jim is a weed-smoking, not-really-employed guy who does not look like much of a catch, certainly not what his sardonic Jesus-loving mother-in-law Celeste (Hollis McCarthy) was hoping for for her daughter. Even with Laurel’s job as a schoolteacher, she relies on Celeste to pay the power bill. It is a situation Laurel summarizes this way just before the baby is born: “Things are not good Jim!… Things are never going to be good. And you know what?… I’m good with things never being good. I’m fine with it.” But of course the revelation of the baby’s race and history is bound to destabilize even this already unstable structure of a marriage. If Laurel is going to rescue it from complete collapse, she is going to require a great deal of centeredness and luck – and Jim.

The path back for this couple will bring Jim into uneasy reliance upon his black best friend Karl (Yaegel T. Welch), and Laurel into confrontation with her old black frenemy Ayesha, Laurel’s boss’s wife (Adrian Kiser). In these encounters, playwright Linder seems to be confirming but also refining Richard Grant‘s apercu. Face-to-face, the racial differences hardly need to be mentioned and play only a small role in how these characters deal with each other. But the social environment in which these pairs find each other matters a lot. There may not be room enough for someone like Karl to stay friends with someone like Jim. And Ayesha cannot either understand or tolerate the prospect of Laurel raising her black baby in Byhalia. Somehow the challenges posed by Karl and by Ayesha must be met.

It emerges that the strongest card Laurel has to play, with both Ayesha and Jim (and also with her mother) is simply her unflinching determination to stay put in Byhalia. There is no suggestion that there is any magic in Byhalia itself; there may be magic, though, in just staying put and going on with one’s life plan, not deviating because of changed circumstances. And of course there is comic magic in keeping the frequently raunchy jokes coming; Linder serves them up like a sitcom writer.

The virtue of Byhalia, Mississippi lies precisely in its modesty. It prescribes no rules, apart from loving one another and telling the truth, for getting through a marital and race-inflected social crisis in a small town; it simply shows how one not-overwhelmingly admirable couple does it. And at that, the true secret here may just be the jokes. Those, and the blackout line at the very end of the play, which just may bring a lump to the throat.

Given the heaviness of many of the other plays in this year’s Festival, a comedy was bound to provide a welcome respite. But it’s more than simply a respite. Byhalia, unlike most of the other plays here, has already established its bona fides, by going through a four-theater premiere (as well as three other staged readings) in 2016. Making so many different audiences laugh, it must have done so when the need for comic relief was not pressing. It can stand alone.

Some plaudits before departing. The cast, like every Shepherdstown cast, is uniformly outstanding. It was especially interesting seeing McCarthy and Savage playing a mother and daughter, having seen them two days earlier portraying a very different mother and a very different daughter in Chelsea Marcantel’s Everything Is Wonderful on the same stage. David M. Barber continues his run as a designer of amazingly detailed sets, with the two-bedroom house on a concrete pad that Jim and Laurel call home. And director Marc Masterson displays a rare talent for getting his cast to elicit laughs with every punch line; if there were any misdelivered ones, I missed them.

Bottom line: Byhalia, Mississippi is definitely worth a visit.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo Credit: Seth Freeman.

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A Clash of Perfectly Opposed Titans in THE NICETIES at CATF

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A Clash of Perfectly Opposed Titans in THE NICETIES at CATF

Margaret Ivey and Robin Walsh

Margaret Ivey and Robin Walsh

Posted on July 11, 2017

Every so often a play turns up that so challenges a critic’s premises that it is hard to come to grips with it objectively. Eleanor Burgess’ The Niceties, or at least a character in it who may well be speaking for the author, vehemently questions the authority of those who were trained in elite institutions of higher education and became beneficiaries of generations of white privilege to say anything about race. Among those whose entitlement to speak Burgess challenges are critics like me.

But even if I feel targeted, I still must respond to The Niceties as a play, using a critic’s tools, and must and shall leave my reactions to the work as a polemic for some other time and place.

So let me start with what is usually the easiest part for a critic – and certainly is here. I can surely say that I was thrilled by The Niceties, now having its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, WV. A two-fisted drama of ideas, it may well leave you devastated, and will certainly send you out talking. It isn’t perfect, as I’ll discuss, but it will keep you thinking and probably angry, regardless of where you come down on the issues very articulately debated in it. To talk about the play, one must first describe it as one would a debate, summarizing the parties’ positions.

The disputants are Janine (Robin Walsh), a white history professor at an unidentified institution of higher learning that is transparently Yale, and Zoe (Margaret Ivey), an African American student. They differ, politely at first, over a class paper Zoe is writing for Janine. Zoe’s thesis is that the American Revolution was a moderate one not because of the statesmanship of the Founding Fathers but because those who waged it had no desire to right the wrong of slavery and fix the fundamental problems of American society.

Janine demurs. She argues that historians must work with the primary data available, and that everything not found in such data must be ignored. Because nothing that might support Zoe’s conclusions stands out in the primary data, she reasons, there is no good reason to subscribe to Zoe’s conclusions. Walsh’s delivery of Janine’s lines at this point comes across as measured, rational, and supremely composed. Zoe’s initial riposte, almost as measured, is that this neat construct consigns us to relying entirely on the voices of white men, history’s winners, who had a nearly exclusive ability to create the record and were unreliable narrators. To Zoe, Janine’s utter dismissal of her theory ignores self-evident truths of human nature, which should be evidence enough.

As the discussion grows more heated, leading to a crisis that leaks out of the professor’s office, it becomes both a proxy for and a microcosm of the larger disputes around race in our country. In the second act (I almost wrote “the second round”) Zoe accuses Janine of not being a suitable teacher. When Janine responds she earned her position, Zoe reminds Janine of all the reasons certain potential competitors may have fallen by the wayside on the way to earning that position: “[F]irst came 250 years of slavery, and then came a hundred years of segregation, and then came a deliberate and systematic attempt to exclude black people from good school districts and good jobs and to lock them up or hunt them down for doing things white people do every day. I need you to say that whatever else it stands for, America has systematically persecuted one part of its population, in a way that benefits the other part. In a way that has benefited you… You won fair and square cuz everyone else had lead boots on.”

The fight culminates with Zoe demanding that Janine make personal reparations for the illegitimate benefit she has received. With the positions of the parties so lucidly laid out, this rather shocking demand seems – less so. Whether it is convincing or acceptable may well depend on who you are.

The unwritten rules of the game for shows that are truly duels of ideas generally provide that each side will get enough good lines so that the spectator can reasonably come out agreeing with either. The dispute in Freud’s Last Session, for instance, could be called for either Sigmund Freud or C.S. Lewis. Burgess opts for the path less traveled and shows one of the women as the clear winner. Thus this ends up being more like the dispute in A Man for All Seasons between Thomas More and all the interlocutors More bests.

Because the playwright’s designation of a victor occurs within and because of what the characters say, there is no need to do it any other way. Nonetheless, Burgess puts her thumb on the scale, and has the losing party also act corruptly at two or three points. It seems inconsistent with this party’s character everywhere else in the play, and it is the imperfection I mentioned before. It would be better, I believe, if the winner had emerged on her own terms from the clash of views and identities, making this a contest of admirable people fated by skin color and history alone to be adversaries.

This speed bump, happily, about the only imperfection in the show. Not being a historian, I have no idea how accurate the play is as to the status of the scholarly opinion about our Revolution, or whether Zoe’s views are so much out of the mainstream, but the talk sounds right. What makes the achievement of this sound particularly remarkable here is that Robin Walsh, whom CATF audiences know from the memorable production of Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot five years ago, was brought in just in the last few days when the original Janine took ill, and performed with very little rehearsal or opportunity to learn her lines. In the performance I saw, she still had a script in front of her that she was using for prompts, but she covered for it beautifully, by giving her character a slight stammer which allowed her to dart glances downwards as needed. That same stammer also conveyed the meticulous care with which Janine crafts every armor-plated, nuance-laden sentence. I’m guessing that if Walsh goes on with the part long enough to be letter perfect with her lines, the stammer will stay.

And Margaret Ivey, seen to advantage in two CATF productions last season, delivers Zoe to us as a worthy foil for Janine. It might be a temptation for a less skilled performer to allow Zoe to get hot under the collar prematurely or too thoroughly. This Zoe keeps her powder dry until she sees the whites of Janine’s eyes. When Zoe finally does explode, she only grows more intelligent and telling in what she says, and still you sense that the character is holding something back. Ivey is, in short, expert at conveying rage behind a somewhat bluff exterior.

When these two get together, therefore, it is a clash of perfectly opposed titans. First Janine can deliver escalating provocation in a carefully modulated tone, and Zoe can respond with carefully modulated frustration, then Zoe can rain down well-considered condemnation which Janine can parry with sincere-sounding sophistication. It’s a great match of parts and performers.

As to Zoe’s ultimate challenge to any beneficiary of white privilege, as I have said, I shall not opine. But – fair warning – forcing each viewer to confront that question is the point of the exercise. If you see this show, when you leave, you will be thinking about that challenge.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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Incandescent Youth and WILD HORSES, a Heady Combination at CATF

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Incandescent Youth and WILD HORSES, a Heady Combination at CATF

Kate Udall

Kate Udall

Posted on July 10, 2017

The highly-stuffed, maybe overstuffed, play is definitely a thing today, if the selection of plays provided in recent seasons of the Contemporary American Theater Festival are any evidence to go by. This event, held each July in Shepherdstown, WV, provides something of a microcosm of the latest in American drama, and of this season’s six offerings, at least three try to deal with a perilously large selection of issues.

Exhibit A would certainly be Allison Gregory’s Wild Horses, a comically indulgent reminiscence of youth, a la Ah, Wilderness! or A Christmas Story, delivered as a one-woman show. But in the course of the intermissionless performance’s roughly hour and a ha of running time, during which the narrator principally recalls, as far as I could piece it together, two 24-hour stretches of her life as a 13-year-old, we find ourselves in the midst of eleven very distinct characters, and dealing with themes as diverse as first encounters with alcohol and sex, strains in a parental marriage, animal welfare, sibling rivalry, teenage friendships and what the passage of the years can do to them and most of all, the simultaneous wonder and danger of encountering, as Gregory summarizes in the program notes, a teenager’s dilemma of having “so many needs” and “so little power.”

This heady mix presents its own combination of wonder and danger, a novel’s worth of content shrunk to the size of a play, and presented through a single performer. That performer, Kate Udall, does a jaw-dropping job keeping all the characterizations separate, and making us fall in love with her character. It is a tribute to both Udall and playwright Allison Gregory that at the end of the show we do not want to let go of the acquaintance of this sprightly, adventurous, and incredibly true-to-life adolescent and her associates. Director Courtney Sale avoids steering Udall into either the longeurs of extended monologue or the distractions of excessive play-acting as the sole character’s yarn unspools.

A tip of the hat as well to set (and costume) designers Jesse Dreikosen and Sam Transleau, for providing a beautifully-functioning space within a theater in the (three-quarters) round. As the audience enters, it encounters not only normal raked seating on three sides, but also a few tables and stools in the middle where some of the spectators sit, and, at the far end, a camper van fitted out as a working refreshment stand serving audience members until the action begins. After Udall’s character, identified only as The Woman, enters, the camper becomes a Swiss Army knife of adaptability, serving in turn as basement bar, the side of a house, stash for props, and situs of a wild experiment in driving by the narrator’s earlier completely untrained self (see the photo above). Meanwhile, the space between the spectators at the tables becomes a range The Woman can freely roam rapidly changing orientation so that the great annoyance of theater in the round, speakers facing away from spectators, is minimized. And because the play is presented as an act of raconteur-dom anyway, which presupposes an audience, there is no fourth-wall problem when The Woman interacts with audience-members (asking them, for instance, to hold her purse or turning one of them into a quondam steering wheel).

Have any teenager’s real-life few hours really been so full of incident? Probably not, and the compression does take a toll on dramatic verisimilitude. One audience member I spoke with on the way out was clearly troubled by this. It did not bother me, because “turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass” is what theater does, and shoving some of those accomplishments closer together in the time represented is a traditional way to shove. What matters here is not the strictness of the account (in real life a raconteur putting a satisfying tale together is often apt to take just such liberties with the time-frame). The point is the group portrait of the youngsters (The Woman’s younger self, her partners in crime Zabby and Skinny Lynny, the callow young men who pursue them or whom they pursue, and The Woman’s big sister, aka The Favorite) in all their confusion, pain, and, most important, their exuberance and their desire to meet life head-on, even if they do not really know what that meeting will demand or entail.

If the compression did not bother me as a dramatic strategy, it did trouble me a bit as dilution of message (a problem I also felt in certain other plays at this year’s Festival). With so many themes wandering around in a single play, there are apt to be some underdeveloped issues and some tonal dissonances; the drama in the parents’ lives, for instance, seemed a bit too sketchy, lacking explanation or depth. And because of the dominant ruefully comical tone set by the narrator’s own adolescent experiences, it was not really possible to assess how we were supposed to respond to the parents’ separate trials, which could have been either tragic or not, based on the limited evidence presented. (We get it and can forgive, of course, that a teen’s self-preoccupied mind may tune out the pain among adults in close proximity, but a story-teller does not enjoy the same privilege; the audience’s curiosity about all the major characters should ordinarily be satisfied.) Likewise, the animal welfare piece came with too few explanations. It looked as if the protagonist and her friends had stumbled on a major piece of villainy, but maybe not, and in any event we did not learn much about the putative perpetrators.

This is the second year, and the second world premiere in a row for Gregory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. (I admired her show last year, Not Medeawhich, though not a solo show, was also something of a monologue delivered by a narrator to an audience, but I thought the purity of this presentation, mediating everything through one performer, worked even better.) Since this show is officially part of a rolling premiere, one can hope and anticipate that the overstuffing will be addressed as the project advances. But even if not a word were changed, the play would not be one to miss.

This year’s edition of the Festival, unlike some recent seasons, featured only hits; every single play is worth seeing. Still, this one was my personal favorite.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo. Photo credit: Seth Freeman.

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The Offensive Offensive

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The Offensive Offensive

Published in the Daily Record, online July 13, 2017, print edition July 14, 2017

Even his biggest fans would probably agree that Donald Trump is the most incivil president in our history. The almost daily outpouring of venom, spleen, and gaucherie from the White House is both beyond dispute and unprecedented, and everyone knows it. Whether it be commenting on a news anchor’s supposed bleeding from plastic surgery, elbowing one world leader aside to get to the front of a photograph, refusing to shake another’s hand, or publicly threatening a witness in a congressional inquiry, to choose just a few examples, Trump and his team are clearly on a rudeness campaign that differs in both kind and degree from anything we have seen before.

Strategic Rudeness

No doubt there are psychological explanations, about which a rich if speculative literature has already sprung up.[1] And commentators have been quick to point out as well that Trump’s offensive offensive, as we might call it, may ultimately prove self-defeating, threatening his legislative priorities and indeed the survival of his presidency. But the survival of the presidency as an institution is of greater concern.

In the shorter term, a kind of rationale for the rudeness has emerged. At first there was a spate of pundit commentary marveling that Trump’s policies were bound to hurt, disproportionately, the very electorate which had put him in office, for instance the health care agenda which would result in the white working class being thrown off insurance, and that Trump seemed not to be paying a price in popularity among these potential victims.[2] More recently, it has been said that for Trump voters it was never truly about the policies, but about tribal animosities, and that by being so offensive towards media, liberals, gays, blacks, Muslim and Latino immigrants, and foreign dignitaries, Trump was producing feelings of delight in his voters that overwhelmed mere self-interest.[3]

Belittling the Messengers

But just as manners are a set of unwritten and largely unwriteable taboos, so too are the customs and constraints of the Presidency. And these are being affected on a daily basis. Take the attacks on and humiliations of the White House press corps. These started at the very outset of the administration, when Sean Spicer gave his first press conference, charging the media with underreporting on the size of the crowd at the inauguration the previous day,[4] which Spicer called “shameful and wrong” and announced the administration’s determination to hold the press accountable. In fact the media had accurately reported on attendance, so the press was effectively on notice that accurate reporting would be called lies and that reporters would be publicly singled out as liars for reporting the truth.

Since then the administration has seemingly lost no opportunity to belittle the White House press corps, be it Trump’s failing to attend the corps’ annual dinner, telling reporter Jim Acosta to his face in a February press conference that he was a purveyor of “fake news,” almost not holding solo presidential press conferences,[5] or tweeting a video showing himself wrestling CNN to the ground and pummeling it. Or it can be his team banning live coverage of press briefings, diminishing the time devoted to “gaggles,” or diminishing the stature of the established press at briefings, in contravention of long-standing precedent, by calling first on representatives of non-mainstream media and even on ones who are not present in the pressroom, in so-called “Skype seats.”

None of this seems to violate formal rules. The White House press corps is a self-governing association, and there is an absence of formal protocols forbidding anything just mentioned. It is not a crime to call accurate reporting shameful and wrong or fake news. No law compels a president ever to give a solo press conference or to avoid tweeting an image of himself pummeling a news network’s logo. No law compels a press secretary to give preference to mainstream media at press briefings or to allow cameras in the room when those briefings are given. It is, then, lawful to demean the journalists who cover the president, diminish their access to information, and disrupt the unwritten customs that establish precedence and credibility among them.

It’s just never been done before, and so no one thought to put the rules in writing.

The Threat of Markers

Yet once unwritten rules are broken, the damage can last. The George W. Bush administration laid down a “marker” in its pursuit of whistleblowers, by almost unprecedently using the 1917 Espionage Act as a basis for investigations of those who publicized American violations of national and international law with its warrantless wiretaps and interrogations under torture. And once the informal immunity of leakers under that law was breached, the Obama administration surged through the hole in precedent, and charged more leakers under that statute than all previous administrations combined. The Obama administration also set records for deportations (usually a heartless and heedless act of any government),[6] but built on the precedents laid down by Bush administration, which saw deportations increase in every year but one among its eight years in office.

Among those who dislike Trump, Obama is seen as an archetypal “good guy,” but his example suggests that bad precedents can lead good guys to do bad things. So there is good reason to fear that Trump’s discourtesies may pave the way for more of the same by his successors.

In days gone by, the presidency derived much power from acting in a non-coercive and non-abusive fashion: appealing to and harnessing disparate branches of government and constituencies in the electorate. This kind of power, in the context of nations, has been called “soft power.” But presidents had soft power too. Showing respect, even when it was merely ceremonial, was a vital part of it. Speaking temperately enabled presidents to avoid diplomatic gaffes, keep friends from turning into enemies, create wiggle room for compromises, avoid inciting demagoguery, and encourage national unity at times of crisis and grief. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, could never have been passed, had LBJ, though notorious for his capacity for coercion, not also been able to have respectful dialogues with Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle.

We may find in future, however, that trash talking at the White House is like negative campaigning, impossible to abstain from once the other guy has made it possible.

Reversible Jerkdom?

Maybe not. We don’t know yet. We’re in uncharted waters. And it looks as if we’re due to sail them for three and a half more years, because Trump and his staff show no signs of letting up. There are no rules that say they can’t act like jerks. And so, it seems certain, jerks they’ll be. It will be up to the next crew in the White House to re-set the norms to what they had been, if it can.


[1]. See, for example, here and here and here.

[2]. See, for example, here and here.

[3]. The only self-interest Trump and for that matter Congress have seemed to be genuinely promoting of late belongs to tax-averse extremely wealthy individuals.

[4]. On this occasion Spicer also (accurately) complained that a Time Magazine reporter had inaccurately reported that Martin Luther King’s bust was gone from the Oval Office, although the report had been retracted – and the Trump administration later went on a concerted effort to dismantle many of the civil rights enforcement mechanisms within the federal government, supporting the underlying perception that the Trump administration is actively hostile to the African American civil rights for which King gave his life.

[5]. According to the American Presidency Project’s website, as of July 2, 2017, after half a year in office, an eighth of his entire term, President Trump had held exactly one solo press conference. By contrast, at the end of his first year in office, President Obama had held seven solo conferences.

[6]. See my earlier column on the subject.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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And I Kinda Like It

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And I Kinda Like It

Taking the Long Way

Not Ready to Make Nice, by Dan Wilson, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Marlie McGuire, performed by the Dixie Chicks 2006, Encountered 2006

Buy it here | Watch here and here | Lyrics here | Sheet music here

“And I kinda like it.”

Those who remember the pop, country, and political scene in 2003 to 2006 will recognize that tag: the affirmation by the Dixie Chicks (Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Marlie McGuire) of Maines’ costly but liberating decision in 2003 to state her views on the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. At Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre in London, Maines commented: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

The House Musicians Rise Up

At that time, the Dixie Chicks were about the most popular country music act. Their resultant loss of status in that community was instantaneous. Their then-current hit Landslide fell from No. 10 down to 43 on the Billboard Hot 100 in a single week. Country is and does a lot of things, but no one is likely to dispute that among them, it serves as the house music of the religious, socially, and politically conservative among us. For these audiences, country music fits into a constellation with fundamentalist faith, football, and the military – and all of them were aligned behind George W. Bush’s war in Afghanistan and incipient war in Iraq in 2003. The reaction to the Chicks’ apostasy against this cultural combine was fierce: death threats, denunciations, a demonstration where their CDs were destroyed. They rethought their identity, stated they no longer considered themselves part of the country music community, and rebranded themselves as rock-n-rollers.

Three years later, the Chicks came out with a powerful meditation on what they had done, what the reaction had been, and how they felt about it. It is an anthem of anger at the anger directed at them, acceptance of the consequences for them, and affirmation of the course they had set out on: they kinda liked it. And if you go to the Chicks’ website today, you’ll see their “Causes” listed, and you’ll see that they have gone right on with the liberal course: Planned Parenthood, democracy, LGBT rights.

As the Chicks proclaimed, it is always liberating to shake off constraints and speak one’s truth.

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell, and I don’t have time
To go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is
You think I should

This song spoke to me about as directly as any chronicled in these pieces. This blog is rooted in that very moment. From sometime in the previous decade, I’d been part of the Lawyers’ Editorial Advisory Board of the Maryland Daily Record, a business and legal newspaper. This was a group of fifteen or so lawyers who combined to write editorials in that paper on matters of legal interest, sometimes intramural within the Maryland community, sometimes broader. I served as principal author of a number of the pieces, and was finding it an increasingly frustrating task. I wanted to say some things that were startling and direct, and collegial authorship was making that close to impossible. There were always colleagues who disagreed with my point, or who counseled mushy compromises. Some wanted us to focus on municipal boosterism, while I wanted to talk about the big political issues, public policy, constitutional legal issues, and things that affected me as a practicing member of the profession.

But it went beyond subject matter. I was spoiling for fights that not everyone on that board wanted to have. And as long as I had to work with the board, I wasn’t going to have most of them.

The Column Begins

Thank goodness for our handler from the newspaper, Barbara Grzincic. One day in 2003 after a meeting of the board she pulled me aside and offered me a monthly column of my own. I think I said yes on the spot. You can see the entire result in this blog starting here, as I have taken all republished all my columns in the Big Picture section of the blog.

Of course it took me a little while to find my feet. One of my early pieces, for example, I later had to retract: I had addressed the Intelligent Design debate with insufficient facts. I also focused more than I should have on being a lawyer. My pieces were too long – something a colleague eventually poked fun at when we were presenting a continuing professional education seminar together, and he assured the audience that in my segment, which came next, I would speak for several hours.

But I knew I had something to present, and a way of presenting it that I had to work out.

I started hitting my stride when I started to write about Afghanistan, Iraq, surveillance, all the lies pouring out of Bush’s White House, and the history of presidential constitutional violations and dishonesty that had enabled the current abuses. The core material was some research I had done nearly twenty years earlier, for a talk to the League of Women Voters, during the Reagan years. Bush, I now saw, was a logical extension of the Nixon and Reagan lies and the Johnson and Reagan overreach. That earlier work gave me a grounding, and my anger at the way things were going pushed me forward. Eventually, my War Powers, War Lies series within my column came to twenty-five columns, a small book.

Over the two years I was producing my War Powers series, I started having fans. People I met on the street, some of them strangers, mentioned that they read me regularly. I also acquired a few detractors, most of them being, however, opposed to what I said, not to me personally. I’m pleased to say that I never had anyone challenge my facts, however. I tried really hard to get them right.

Of course my little brush with local fame had at least one drawback. I knew from the start that any ambitions I had ever had to become a judge would vanish because of my outspokenness. The people who choose judges generally shy away from those with controversial viewpoints, particularly controversial ones from my end of the political spectrum. Luckily, I had never been prey to that ambition in anything but the vaguest daydream.

The ambition I had had, I’d already achieved: I was a name partner in a good law firm. Better yet, as I quickly realized, neither my clientele nor my partnership was going to put any appreciable crimp in my ability to be outspoken. I did not alienate any clients that I was aware of by what I said, nor did I confront what lawyers call issues conflicts (where a position you take in some public context is inconsistent with an argument you’re making on a client’s behalf), forcing me to silence myself or even moderate my views.

One’s Own Voice

The greatest gift, though, was finding my voice. I was expressing my distrust of the powers that were, my awareness of the evils wrought by the powers that had been, and my bitterness about the whole situation, with all the honesty and erudition at my disposal. I had never heard myself talking that way before. And I kinda liked that sound.

The first time I heard Not Ready to Make Nice I snapped to attention. The Chicks were singing exactly what I was feeling. Of course they had been playing for much greater personal and business stakes than I. But the exaltation at breaking through, at saying what they felt, at liking how they sounded: that was what I was feeling. That song was my anthem.

Even now, a decade later, I still get a glint in my eye when I hear it.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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Interesting Times

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Interesting Times

Puublished in the Daily Record, online June 16, 2017, print edition June 18, 2017

For a columnist who writes about policy matters, this is a challenging time. In principle, we live in a target-rich environment. Probably not since the New Deal has there been such a concerted effort by government to change existing laws and policies. And probably never since the Articles of Confederation has there been such incoherent policy-making, in all branches of government. And maybe one has to look back to the last days of the Roman Empire to find such costly improvidence at the top, the gleeful and deliberate fiddling while the whole environment literally burns. The level of governmental dishonesty and greed motivating and accompanying all of this is commonplace enough not to require historical comparisons – but does require geographical ones. Our corruption level is beginning to resemble what one might look for in places like Russia or the Congo.

All of it great column fodder.

Actually Daunting

Nonetheless, the situation is actually daunting for a scribe. The instant analysis of each development reposted to any Facebook feed assures that the minutiae of any issue are quickly aired. But because of the interconnectedness of all of these issues, the big picture (which columns like this exist to discuss) quickly becomes too broad to talk about, particularly given what we don’t yet know.

Take, as an example – and there’s only time for one example, though I could give you several – what has come to be called Russia-gate. We don’t yet know precisely what’s at the heart of the story. What did Russia do or attempt to do in its contacts with the Trump campaign? Interfere with the mechanics of the election? Commit the Trump team to making Moscow-friendly policy changes – as Trump’s recent failure to endorse the mutual defense principle, core to NATO’s mission, in the face of recent Russian military incursions westward and southward, seems to confirm? Or simply compromise members of the team for future use?

And what was the Trump team doing? Obtaining illegal help with the election? Pledging policy changes? Getting help or promises of help with Russian business or funding? Acceding to blackmail?  A yes answer to any one or more of these questions probably establishes serious illegality.

A lot of ink has been spilled parsing out yes answers against various criminal statutes. But all we know for sure at this point is that our intelligence agencies picked up some contacts, involving apparently at least Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner, and that Flynn engaged in improper policy talk. No definite fire.

Still, there’s a lot of smoke of more recent vintage. We know that some of Trump’s income in the past is of Russian origin, which in itself is not necessarily illegal, though it probably puts him in bed with Russian gangsters and Russian intelligence, and would raise serious Emoluments Clause problems if the business continued now that he is president. Emoluments Clause material is good for a column on its own. We know that Mr. Trump himself divulged security secrets to the Russians in the Oval Office. Classified intel is always grist for a pundit’s mill.

It’s the Cover-Up

The trouble may be, as it was in Watergate, the cover-up as opposed to the underlying offense. (The White House spokesman at the time accurately called the underlying offense a two-bit burglary). There has certainly been a comment-worthy cover-up.

We know that Trump: tried to suborn the then-head of the FBI, James Comey, by asking for loyalty (obviously of the personal variety, despite a later effort to parse it as loyalty to the country); grew furious when his Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from control of the FBI’s investigation; fired Comey while trying to make it look as if the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had instigated it; and tweeted furious defiance when Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to continue the investigation independently. Apart from the fact that it looks like nothing so much as a rerun of Watergate itself complete with a “massacre,” you could comment about various subjects like independence and absence of political control within the Justice Department, and about what Trump could do in future to spike the investigation.

Then there’s the question of potential consequences of what might be found, either by way of underlying offense or cover-up. What in this morass of misbehavior might constitute impeachable offenses, given that, for instance, treason requires an “enemy” to aid and comfort – and Russia may be perceived as an enemy by some, but evidently not by the administration, which makes foreign policy. Does the administration get the right to define the vocabulary under which it may be impeached? Someone should write an article about that. And speaking of definitions, you can also be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Anyone care to state categorically if anything Trump and his crew may have done fits under that vague rubric?


How about the hundredth column on whether the Republican Congress would summon the political will to impeach? Or better yet, the column I haven’t seen yet, on whether, if only Trump’s henchmen can be proven to have had illegal contacts with Russian henchmen, but not Trump himself, that is sufficient to be grounds for impeachment. In other words, can high crimes and misdemeanors be a vicarious offense? And even if it can, how do you prove it if only proxies did the actual crimes?

Then, as an alternative, there is always talk about the 25th Amendment. The question what “unable to discharge the powers and duties” of the presidential office might mean in practical terms has picked up a new interest, to say the least, in a time of an erratic leader who has not submitted to an independent psychiatric exam, and probably could not be dragged to the couch.

And here’s a phrase that conjures up a bunch of column-worthy questions all on its own: “President Pence.”

May you live in interesting times, goes the Chinese curse. Sure enough, interesting times can curse a columnist through sheer overload.


[1] Trump has been accused, albeit not very credibly, of unsavory behavior with prostitutes in Moscow, known to Russian intelligence. Even if these reports are disproved, it is far from unimaginable that he might have done other things that would lay him open to blackmail.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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God’s Extravagant Creation

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God’s Extravagant Creation

Edited Version of Remarks Delivered at St. Vincent de Paul Church’s Easter Vigil 2017

Buckle up! In the next few minutes we are going to cover an immense amount of distance and time, and think about some challenging things, and I aim to make the ride a little bumpy. All set?

Going back over the years, this may the fourth time I’ve talked at this service about the opening stories of Genesis. Recently I’ve focused on the hard lessons of Chapters 2 and 3 about morality and mortality. But to get to them, I kind of skipped over the two utterly enthralling and fascinating creation stories in Chapters 1 and 2. We just heard the first of those stories, about the dawn of everything.

Unapologetically Anthropocentric

Genesis 1 and 2 tell us about God fashioning everything, and setting the table for us, creating a world with the fundamental requirements for us to exist: earth, sky, sea, night and day, plants, animals – and us ourselves. It is a fundamentally anthropocentric story, in which mankind is presented unapologetically as the crown of creation, and in it all that is created is stated to be for man’s benefit.

There is another theme in the creation myths of Genesis: the wonder of it all. When God keeps marveling how good it all is, it’s an invitation to us to marvel as well. And it’s even easier for us than for the ancients who came up with this story; they had no remote idea how wondrous it really all was. We have a better one.

This evening, I want to compare and contrast the ancients’ ideas with those of modern scientists about the same things – as best I can. Now, most of you know that I’m no scientist. That said, I do read a lot. And one thing I can tell you with confidence is that what we think we know on this subject is dwarfed by what we can be quite certain we don’t know. The most informed people know just enough, as the saying goes, to be dangerous. But here we  go!

Still the Appropriate Reaction

Modern scientists, when they try to reconstruct the way everything came about, are more resistant to the notion of everything being assembled with our arrival in mind. Yet it is hard to put the scientific story together without seeing that human-centered story arc in there. I’m not saying it’s logically compelled, but in a mysterious way it seems to make sense, given our limited information.

And marveling at this insanely huge creation is still the appropriate reaction.

So let’s look at the standard modern version and see what echoes it evokes next to Genesis. I will start out by saying that whether there was anything before the Big Bang, the explosion that kicked off our universe – whether that is even a meaningful question, is up in the air as far as scientists are concerned. I wish I could do justice here to the richness of the concepts involved, but I lack the time and the scientific knowledge or rigor. I’ll simply say that if you look at the red shift, the changes in spectrum that tell us where the stars are going from and to and how fast, and if you decode the cosmic rays that are part of the background radiation in space, you cannot avoid concluding that it all started in one spot.

Before-ness in the Singularity

And by all I mean all: all matter and all space as well. But if it really was in one spot, then it must have been a spot of infinitesimal size and nearly infinite mass and heat and energy. The trouble is, if you posit that, then at that spot, all the laws of physics, both conventional and quantum physics, break down, among them the laws governing time. There basically isn’t supposed to be time in a singularity like that.

So what do we do with the notion that our universe may not have had any time when it started? What does that do to the question of what may have existed before it? Before-ness is a quality that only makes sense in the context of time. There are cosmologists who get around the problem by saying that in that context time curves. I guess that suggests that time slingshots around that singularity the way a spacecraft can sling around the gravitational field of a planet and come back. Otherwise put, perhaps our universe has always been here, because in curved time there would be no such thing as a beginning.

But wait! If that were true, what room would there be for a God the Creator?

Sorry, Aquinas!

Whatever Thomas Aquinas, with his emphasis on God’s role as the source of everything, might have said, the author of Genesis would not have seen the problem. Remember, in Genesis, the Creation is not quite the origin of the world. By the time God gets to work in the story’s first couple of sentences, there is already an ocean and a formless wasteland that, for all the story tells us, could have existed from all time. In Genesis, God’s creativity seems to work on materials that already exist.

Or course, if you could interrogate the author of Genesis, you might find that he or she attributed the ocean and the wasteland to an earlier act of God’s creation. Who knows? If you need to see a God as in some sense prior to the emergence of anything, though, then I need to mention what some quantum physicists think: that matter and energy bubble in and out of existence all the time, and that the origins of the singularity that existed before the Big Bang may have lain in this kind of spontaneous self-generation. There is also a theory that ours is just one of an infinity of universes bubbling up out of nothing. Again, none of this rules out divine agency. A natural order in which universes bubble up out of nothing cries out – to our human minds, at least – for a cause. Can a natural order create itself, even one in which things spontaneously generate? That thought just seems wrong.

In any case, time and our universe did get started. Most scientists think now that the start was the explosion we call the Big Bang about 13.6 billion years ago. And the story from there to here – well, let’s just say that it sure lends itself to seeing an intentionality at the center. A lot had to happen before there could be a world for us.

What Had to Happen

Let’s break it down some. First, much is supposed to have happened in the first milliseconds. One of the first changes, scientists think, was the predominance of only three dimensions among the ten or eleven our mathematics seems to show must exist. The remaining dimensions are thought to have curled up tight so that they are not major players. If they had not done that, apparently gravity wouldn’t have worked right. Don’t ask me to explain what I just said, because I can’t, but I think there’s a lot of scientific consensus behind it.

Just like the void of which Genesis speaks, gradually taking form, scientists envision the way that our mostly three-dimensional universe took form from a plasma – hot non-molecular atomic particles, uniformly distributed throughout the cosmos. (I can’t show you a picture, because there wouldn’t have been any light emitted from that heat.)

Then, little bits of plasma bumped up against each other and stayed together, bound by basic physical forces. Gas atoms formed. These atoms kept bumping up against other ones, and congregated, so the clouds of gas grew and grew. And because of the physical laws dictating what happens when matter aggregates, they got hot and started the reactions that turned these balls of gas into stars. Billions and billions of stars. And light again. At this point we’re maybe a hundred million years out from the Big Bang. (Here’s an actual photo from the Hubble of what the universe looked like then.)

Day 8 - First Stars

Also important was the formation of the first black holes. Nowadays they come from collapsed supernovas; perhaps initially they were fragments of the singularity. In any case, they did a vital job of pulling stars together into formations we call galaxies. In those formations, stars could collaborate more closely on joint projects like forming elements.

Life in a Balloon

Meanwhile space itself was growing, and apparently continues to do so. Here’s something to wrap your mind around: if we have any descendants ten billion years from now, they’ll look up and they won’t see too many other galaxies besides our Milky Way, despite the fact that there are billions of galaxies. Why? Because most of the other galaxies will have moved so far away from us and so quickly that the light from them will never reach us.

How is that possible? We’re told that nothing can move faster than light. So however fast these other galaxies are moving, surely they can’t outrun the light they are shining on us. And that would be true, if space itself, including the space between us and other galaxies, weren’t expanding. We don’t understand what space is, but the best comparison for this purpose is to a balloon. Whatever space is, it has been or is being pumped into this balloon so rapidly that almost everything in that balloon is being separated from everything else at a speed that exceeds the speed of light.

For the time being at least, we can see a lot of galaxies. And right now, we can see about 46 billion light years in any direction. In other words, we can look around within a sphere of double that diameter, about 91 billion light years wide. It all looks like universe, galaxies in all directions. Is there universe beyond that? Almost certainly, but we have no way of knowing how much, or whether it curves in on itself eventually, as many physicists suspect.

But what this wild profusion tells us for sure is that creation proceeds on an unimaginable scale, much of it unseeable and unknowable. Billions and billions and billions of stars and galaxies and black holes and who knows what else in this expanding realm we call space.

Our small story is dependent on that big story. So let’s return to it.

Celestial Cuisine

If we’re thinking in terms of what’s necessary to make us, what we need at this stage of the game are planets, so that one day there can be a planet for us. The thing is, to have a planet with somewhere solid to stand, we had to have heavier elements than the hydrogen, helium and lithium that were the main components of the earlier universe. It turns out that the stars were cookhouses for all the other elements, including carbon, vital to all life that we know of. But those elements had to be in the oven a really long time, about ten billion years from the Big Bang to be produced in terrestrial quantities. And then the stars that were doing the cooking had to go supernova or somehow explode, so as to spread the mineral wealth around to younger stars that could capture those blobs of heavy star matter and fashion planets from them. And it turns out that a star dying in that fashion is not necessarily inevitable. Certain chemical and physical properties are required, or the star goes out in another way.

But there were enough supernovas that eventually planets became commonplace anyhow. Scientists estimate there may be 1024 planets out there.

Of course it isn’t enough that there are planets. Not just any planet will do to support life – at least not carbon-based life forms like us. And here I’m going to paraphrase some of what Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow say in their recent book The Grand Design: About half the stars out there are in pairs, circling each other – not good for life on the planets that circle them.

The Goldilocks Orbit

You need a planet with an orbit that is nearly circular rather than elliptical – which is good for keeping temperature relatively constant – because life does not favor wide variations in temperature. And you can’t get circular orbits around double stars. So there had to be single stars. And orbits work in only our three dimensions, which makes it handy that the other dimensions are tucked out of the way somewhere.

You need a planet with the right distance from the star it’s circling. To make it concrete, in the case of our earth, if we were 20% closer to the sun, we’d be hot as Venus, and if we were 20% further out, we’d be as cold as Mars. And there’s another important result of the so-called Goldilocks zone we exist in: liquid water is possible. Our lives are nearly unthinkable without a world in which there can be liquid water, frozen water, and evaporated water.

Also we need to have a magnetic core if only to allow us to form radiation belts that keep harmful radiation away from the surface.

Beautiful Volcanoes

What’s another vital thing for our lives here? An atmosphere. Scientists think we have volcanoes to thanks for that – another reason we needed a molten magnetic core on which tectonic plates of earth could float and rupture and collide and give us beautiful volcanoes. Volcanoes spewed water, carbon dioxide, and ammonia, from whence what we breathe ultimately evolved. Also our oceans.

And we received all of that. To me, that feels so like running the table against long odds, there almost has to be a God in our corner, making it happen.

Of course, it would feel less miraculous if we knew it were commonplace. But we have no comparators.

Four Necessary Things

And on that subject, let’s talk numbers. I’ve read that there are perhaps 500 planets in our galaxy that fulfill the four conditions for life as we know it: a) correct orbits that preserve moderate temperatures and don’t run through radiation zones, b) made of rock, c) possessed of a molten core, and d) capable of holding an atmosphere. On the assumption our galaxy is typical, multiply that 500 by 100 billion, the number of galaxies we can see, and you get an estimate of 50 trillion planets throughout the cosmos that might have the requirements for supporting life.

And yet, so far as we know, we are alone. The problem is, it’s not clear how we’d know if we weren’t. Think of what would have to happen for our neighbors to know about us. The most likely way neighbors would learn about us would be to pick up on our radio and TV signals, now that we are emitting radio waves 24/7. But we’ve only been broadcasting for a little less than a century, meaning that our earliest transmissions are only 100 light-years out at this stage. Hence our radio transmissions can have only reached about 500 stars so far, because all the other stars are further away than 100 light-years. And 500 is an infinitesimally small proportion of the stars that are out there even in our galaxy. So, turning it around, if other planets out there supported radio-broadcasting life forms who developed at the same time as we did, they’d have to be on planets around one of those 500 stars in order for their radio transmissions to have reached us yet. The odds of that happening would be vanishingly small. And if the radio-broadcasting neighbors happened to be on a planet circling the furthest-away star within our own galaxy, they would have had to have sent out their signal nearly 100,000 years ago for it to reach us today.

So we have no information. We don’t know whether we’re rare or commonplace. But I think Genesis speaks to us either way.

If We’re Unique

Say we’re rare, that this whole vast creation contains nothing else like us. A 91-billion light-year wide cosmos, filled with billions and billions of stars and black holes and planets, etc., just so there could be an us. It’s conceivable, but at the same time insane. What could we possibly think about a God who would paint so long and so hard on such a stupendous canvas, when the most interesting and important detail was all encompassed in one little speck buried in some off-center part of the picture that no observer could possibly see?

Because of that apparent mismatch between us and our setting, the response of skeptics has been to propose a concept of the universe as a one-armed bandit whose handle has been pulled trillions of times. The evolution of every star, every planet, counts as a pull. All the planets that don’t meet those four preconditions for life are just bets that didn’t pay off. But a certain number of those planets, as we’ve seen, do meet those conditions. They pay off, somewhat. Most of them won’t be jackpots, though. The planets that meet the conditions of life but don’t develop carbon-based life forms, or get hit by an asteroid that blows them apart, or get swallowed up by a supernova or a plague or a volcanic eruption that destroys all life, or do develop life that never becomes intelligent, or do develop that kind of life, which goes on to destroy itself by engineering its own ecological catastrophe or killing itself off with warfare, or what have you, they’re not jackpots. But with trillions of pulls, the theory goes, everything is bound to line up at least once and yield the jackpot of intelligent life. No God guiding it and looking at it afterwards and see how good it all is; just the operation of the odds.

To which a believer might respond: yeah, but who set the odds in the first place? Where does this one-armed bandit of a universe with all of its laws and all of its huge capacity to allow trillions of opportunities to create intelligent life come from? Maybe the very reason there’s such a vast cosmos is that its creator knew how many tries would be required to bring about something like us. That might explain the otherwise apparently insane profusion of creation. Of course it would leave open the question of why God created a universe that made it so hard to achieve what God was aiming at. But it’s hardly irrational to infer a divine hand behind the workings of nature, even if we don’t have much of a clue why those workings were ordered the way they are.

If We’re Nothing Special

Or let’s try the opposite tack. Let’s say we’re nothing special, and that races like us are seeded throughout the universe, perhaps all unaware of each other. Genesis, of course, was written without notice of these other planets and other races. But the basic insight there: that what was done was done to set the table for our existence and survival: that would seem equally adapted to every planet that hits the jackpot and supports intelligent life. The more such planets there might be, the less urgent the questions we’ve just been grappling with. If it turns out that the making of planets that support intelligent life is relatively commonplace, then it would seem that God would have been aiming to create a lot of separate good things. That seems reasonable.

It would raise some interesting questions, to be sure. We used to hear Fr. Lawrence entertain them: Would there be separate incarnations there? Separate original sin? Separate redemption? You might recall that C.S. Lewis speculated about just this question in his science fiction novel Perelandra, set in a world which had not yet fallen and into which sin had not yet entered. (The mission of the hero was to prevent those things from happening.) I read neither Genesis nor any other part of the Bible as ruling out such things. Until we have a known instance of any other intelligent life out there, however, it’s all speculation.

What we do know, from Genesis and from what is in our hearts, I am sure, is that what God or nature has gifted us with is good, is sacred, and necessary for us. It seems that we now increasingly have the means within our grasp to reject that gift. We can poison the ecosphere or blow up the whole human species or even all species. We can exhaust some vital natural resource or tear down resistance to some virus that will kill us all.

Too Sickening to Contemplate

Think of this reality in relation to the two basic scenarios I’ve posed. Let’s say that this whole unimaginably vast creation was truly just about us. Are there words for what a tragedy it would be if we extinguished the whole point of not just our own earth but of literally everything, including all the billions of galaxies and trillions of stars? If we wiped out, not just the few billion humans involved, but literally the meaning of everything?

The prospect is only a little more endurable if it turns out there are other inhabited worlds. Maybe the jackpot we could have embodied got wasted. Maybe God built into the odds that there would be late-breaking failures like us. Maybe, even having sent the Redemption and the Resurrection we celebrate this night, God has not persuaded us to abandon suicidal destructiveness. Maybe we just didn’t have what it took to make the grade. And hopefully some other beings somewhere else will succeed where we failed, so that God’s plan may be realized somehow, somewhere.

Personally, I recognize the possibility of that outcome, but I refuse to reconcile myself to it. To me, and hopefully to all of us here, that sickening kind of failure is not an option. To me, looking at the vastness of the universe, with all that light, all that activity, all that excitement – all of which God sees and thinks good – I take heart. Though I do not know much about saving a planet, I sense that the purpose of this stupendous undertaking will not be easily frustrated, and that somehow I and you and all of us will be shown ways to contribute to keeping the show going.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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