As a very fresh freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, the first play that I saw with my “Far-Off, Off-Off, Off- and On-Broadway” class was Lucy Thurber’s Killers and Other Family at the Rattlestick Theatre. Talk about plunging into the thick of it. Or rather, jumping in with both feet, out of the frying pan and into the fire. Metaphors aside, watching that performance in 2009, I was bereft. I was sitting next to my professor at the Sunday afternoon matinee, and I was sobbing, while trying not to make any noise. Afterwards, when we met the actors on the street, I was uncomfortable making eye contact, because I couldn’t recognize them as anyone other than the twisted and tormented and deeply understandable characters with whom I had just spent the past two hours.
Four years later, I am now a volunteer usher for the Rattlestick, and I have just completed my service at their Theater Village Series, a festival of five Hill Town plays by Lucy Thurber, performed from August 14-September 28: Scarcity, Ashville, Where We’re Born, Killers and Other Family and Stay. And by no means do these plays mellow with time — yet again, I was laughing and heartswelling with sympathy and crying my eyes out. (But this time, I brought tissues.)
I was particularly struck by Thurber’s exploration of her characters’ “goodness” throughout this series, through her tormented characters who cannot separate love from violence. Parents in this world, particularly in Ashville and Scarcity, are constantly reminding their children that they are “a good girl,” or “a good boy,” which sets up a challenging paradigm for morality. In Thurber’s world, “goodness” is associated with an intelligence and ambition to improve one’s social class through education. Therefore, “goodness” is contrasted with the world of their childhood, their parents, and their home, since these daughters and sons are told that they are “good” every time their parents want to remind them that their future can be happier and safer. If the children are “good,” in contrast to their “evil” surroundings, how can they grow up to continue loving and relating to their families? And yet, violent and depressed as they may be, these families support their children’s ascension, because they proudly recognize that their children will achieve success they have never known. Therefore, even when parents are drunkenly beating their children until someone sobers up enough to intervene, they always apologize with the affirmation that their children are “good.” “Goodness” is an escape.
But what impact does this construction of morality have on the adult children? Although Thurber often writes characters who are stuck in their oppressive rhythms, her plays are also filled with characters who have effectively changed their circumstances, generally by means of education, and are dealing with the consequences of shifting allegiances between two very different worlds. Although her characters are often stuck, they are not stagnant. I never cringe so hard as when I’m at a Thurber play, because she depicts such a spectrum of volcanic senseless violence. Fist fights erupt out of drunken hazes and over passionate desires for vindication. Sex can be an act of love and beautiful personal discovery, a bargaining tool, or a lullaby. Ingeniously, these emotional explosions are frequently a combination of all these motives, because life is messy, and these characters would be the first to tell you that the “goodness” instilled in them as children has never existed as a simple dichotomy. In this way, Thurber conjures the raw brutality of family with the delicacy of melancholy. (An audience member at the production of Ashville that I saw whispered to me that she thinks of Thurber as our modern-day O’Neill.)
Like O’Neill, Thurber intimately reveals the world she has known since childhood, stricken with poverty and small-town ignorance, and vastly different than the one in which an upper-middle-class New York audience is living. And yet, thanks to the complexity and intelligence of her characters, the vast majority of audience members are profoundly sympathetic with the Hill Town world. Coming from a small town myself, I would be curious to know how the people of Western Massachusetts would respond to these productions. Thurber is unabashed in writing small town characters full of ignorance and prejudice from fear of the unknown, as well as that American hubris of what we deserve for a hard day’s work, which often manifests itself in domination of our possessions, including women. Would their recognition of the themes addressed be even more potent? Or would the stories be too familiar to recognize?
And really, why would anyone want to sit through this vicious storytelling, and bear witness to such painfully tortured love? Throughout the series, I had been grappling with this question, and the answer was crystallized for me by a performance of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at the Duo Theatre. Inherently, pain and violence as catalysts for beauty are the exact opposite approach to my (idealistic) understanding of the world. However, it’s important to attend theatre that makes us uncomfortable because it allows a new appreciation of beauty and goodness that comes from the vulnerability of watching others experience pain. The immediacy of theatre is unparalleled; it’s the only artistic medium where people get together in a room and feel together, in real time. When Thurber and Kane capitalize on the tangibility of their medium, it’s like a warped version of the “scared straight” tactic. They provide their audience with a terrible and terrific reality check.
In Blasted, the last words of the play are, “Thank you.” After all the torturous pain and gruesome violence that we witness, the saving grace is human kindness, forgiveness, mercy, and pity. In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to be sheltered from gore and violence, and no part of me seeks that kind of pain. However, I realize that my perception is not universal, and that a lot of people understand hurt, and the power and strength associated with it. These characters resort to the insanity of violence as a release when they can’t figure out how to express themselves otherwise. Both Thurber and Kane ask us to take a good long look at the dirty, sticky, offensive and repulsive underbelly of our society, and then they subvert our expectations, to highlight the humanity and the goodness within. And then, they ask us what we’re going to do about it. I, for example, after this marathon of unsettling theatre, reached out to my family. I said thank you and told people I loved them and paid a compliment to a stranger in the street. After seeing Blasted, I was so grateful for the simple aesthetic pleasure of music that I gave my last dollar to a cello busker in the subway. The microcosm of community that develops in a live audience has a radiant effect. When you have an intensely personal experience surrounded by other people going through the same mire, this universality reminds you of the importance and the depth of those emotions, and you will notice them as continue to stir through you, throughout your day. Theatre has the ability to provide the most raw, graphic, shocking experience because it is live, and both Kane and Thurber capitalize on this power.
In a word, I was stunned by the Hill Town Plays, and I can’t laud Thurber highly enough for her daring and revealing voice. Although her theatre hurts, I believe her audiences walk away with a thicker skin and a stronger heart.