“Let’s face it,” says the playwright John Patrick Shanley at the end of the podcast of his play Tennessee, “All of our attention spans were shattered long ago, and these little bits of things are easier.”
Easier for us to find time for, but no less profound for the brevity. And it’s free. Free and profound, what could be nicer in this age of Covid?
The play clocks in at 15 minutes, and the two actors (pictured above) are stellar. Even though it’s audio-only, I feel present, like I’m sitting in a Broadway theatre with my eyes closed.
The year is 2012, and we’re at an outdoor cafe in Mt. Juliet, a small town outside Nashville, Tennessee. Mike enters with a guitar slung over his shoulder, looking to speak to the young woman sitting alone at a table. Mike’s twenty and has just dropped out of college. He’s heard that Dewey can predict the future, and he wants her to tell him his. He’s also heard she’s a lesbian, but that’s just a rumor started by her ex-husband after she walked out, and it’s cost her the only job she ever loved–teaching piano. Dewey doesn’t want Mike to sit in the empty chair across from her. She tells him she’s saving it for “the opposition.” But Mike is persistent. When Dewey tells him things about himself that she couldn’t reasonably know, he keeps after her until she tells him his future. It’s a dark portrait that really upsets him, but the play doesn’t end there.
The discussion that follows the performance is with the playwright, the two actors, and podcast host Claudia Catania, and it’s as fun and thought-provoking as the play itself. Total time invested, including the play: 22 minutes.
“The Opposition,” as Dewey eventually tells Mike, is love. But the playwright explains afterwards that he was talking about “love” in the broader sense, not just romantic love. “There’s a way of looking at the world where you just sort of think of everybody and everything as an extension of yourself. And there’s another way of experiencing life where other sensibilities hit you and change you. And I guess I call that the opposition sometimes, and other times I call it company.” Shanley goes on to say he goes through fairly long periods where he doesn’t feel like he has any company. He feels like he never enters a place with the person across from him where their spirits interact in a way that changes them both and moves them forward.
Did you know John Patrick Shanley posts poems on Facebook? It comes up in the discussion. In the play, Mike’s just read a poem Dewey’s posted on Facebook. “A waterfall is a river broken in two.” He’s not sure what it means but says it has nothing to do with anything he hates and he hates a lot of things. Posting the poem, Dewey says, is her answer to loneliness. For Shanley himself, though, “To have another forum, especially one that’s free, is appealing to me. And the constant pressure to come up with something is good for me.”
As for the very short plays he often writes, he jokes that they’ve made him very wealthy. The serious reason is that they’re “test wells to see where the oil is.” His Broadway play Outside Mullingar started out that way, but then he realized he had a lot more he wanted to say. (A middle-aged man and woman, neighbors in rural Ireland, manage to find love despite different dispositions, a grudge dating back to grade school, and a land dispute between their parents.) I saw the play at a regional theatre in Dallas, pre-Covid, and loved it.
It’s fair to say John Patrick Shanley is living the American Dream. He grew up in the Bronx with a meat-packer Dad and a telephone operator Mom. He was put on academic probation his first year at NYU, but he returned there after serving stateside in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He graduated as the Valedictorian of his class. Today his resume includes 25+ plays, a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony win in 2005 for Doubt: A Parable (later made into a memorable movie with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Amy Adams.) He also won an Oscar in 1988 for Best Original Screenplay for Moonstruck, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. (Still great–I watched it not long ago on Turner Classic Movies)
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While talking about one of the themes in Tennessee, Shanley says, “Knowing the future doesn’t save you from anything because we are irrational creatures. . . Marriage falls under that egis and so do elections.” Tennessee was recorded in January 2018, and the tumultuous Presidential election was still very much on his mind more than a year later. He said he was waiting for the dust to settle so we can have a coherent discussion and find a way forward that is healthy for society.
And now the next election is mere months away. Whatever our differences, don’t most of us want to live in a healthy society?