By Retta Blaney | April 25, 2015
Interview with Don Nguyen and Chris Cragin-Day about Red Flamboyant
As a playwright born in Vietnam, Don Nguyen saw dramatic possibilities in a New York Times story about an HIV-positive woman in Haiphong, a large port city near Hanoi, who started the country's first support group for infected women. He wasn't sure, though, that he could turn it into a play. Not only was it a heavy subject, but having lived in the U.S. since he was 3, he questioned his ability to capture the women's reality.
"I'm Vietnamese, but I grew up in Nebraska," he said. "They felt very foreign to me. I wasn't sure how I could write their voices. It was a fascinating subject but seemed daunting to take on."
Like most writers, he had a number of ideas rumbling around in his head. One nudging from the back of his mind was the ancient Vietnamese legend of the Trung sisters, who gave their lives in a fight against the Chinese army. Nguyen saw a creative challenge in combining the factual story with the myth, as both were about strong women fighting for liberation -- from a disease and its stigma, and from a threatening military.
The play that resulted, "Red Flamboyant," will have its world premiere April 24-May 16 at Calvary-St. George's, an Episcopal church in Manhattan, N.Y. The play is produced by Firebone Theatre, an off-off-Broadway company dedicated to producing plays "where the human meets the divine."
With casting set to begin, Nguyen, 42, and Firebone's artistic director, Chris Cragin-Day, 37, took time out on a cold January afternoon to talk about the production in Cragin-Day's office at The King's College, a Christian college in New York's financial district, where she is an assistant professor of English and theater.
"I love the feminist aspects of this story," Cragin-Day said. "I love these women who are just so powerful, not in a social sense but in a soul sense."
The real-life inspiration for the main character, Mrs. Hue, is Pham Thi Hue, who was featured in the 2006 Times story that Nguyen read. Although AIDS was widespread in Vietnam, many of those who had it were shunned by their families and fired if their employers found out. Most of the infected women had received the virus from husbands who were IV drug users.
Hue called her shelter Haiphong Red Flamboyant after a Vietnamese flower. Not only did she receive no government funding, the article said, but she had to endure bricks being thrown through her windows and a constant struggle to find money for food and medicine.
Nguyen hadn't known HIV/AIDS was so prevalent in Vietnam.
"It affected me, being Vietnamese, and that the country I was born in had such a huge problem. The stigma around it was shocking to me, and I wondered how I could get a germ of a play from that."
He began writing in 2008. To create a naturalistic play about Hue and all those dying of AIDS would be "an overwhelming experience for the audience," he said. "I had to find a less realistic way. The Trung sisters legend demanded more heightened reality. It dictated the voice of the play."
In short, the Trung sisters formed an army to seek revenge after the Chinese killed the husband of one of the sisters. The Chinese fought back and demanded the Vietnamese give up the sisters. They sacrificed themselves by jumping into a ravine.
Nguyen recognized a connection between Hue and the legendary sisters.
"She was a modern-day warrior who could be juxtaposed with the ancient female of Vietnam to make a great story."
But by 2010 and his "20th draft," he was frustrated. "I felt like I was writing from a distance with these people."
He decided to go to Vietnam to get a feel for the country and possibly meet Hue. Since he didn't speak Vietnamese, he asked his parents to go with him, and they readily agreed.
A cousin in the country found Hue for Nguyen and told her about the play he was writing. She agreed to a meeting. It was then that it hit him: Suppose the real Hue was nothing like the character he had created?
"It became really stressful. All I had had was one article to base her off of," Nguyen said.
His appointments with Hue kept getting canceled, meaning rescheduling flights a couple of times. After three weeks, it seemed ill-fated.
But when yet another meeting was scheduled, he went for it.
"It was really a good test of faith," he said.
And it paid off. With his father as interpreter, Nguyen talked to Hue for an hour. When he mentioned he was incorporating the sisters' legend, "her eyes lit up" and she told him it is the Vietnamese belief that "if you do something great, you are a sibling of the Trung sisters."
She told him to make it clear that she receives no government support. In that strong insistence, he recognized the character he had created was very much like the real Hue.
As Nguyen was leaving, Hue said something to him in Vietnamese. He smiled and nodded. In the taxi, his father told him she had said, "Don't forget about me."
And he hasn't. Ten percent of ticket sales from "Red Flamboyant" will go to support the real-life women through the Vietnam Relief Organization.
The four female characters and one male character will be played by Vietnamese actors if possible. If not, definitely by Asians. The actors will play instruments, since the play incorporates live and recorded music. The play also will feature puppetry, possibly water puppets, which are immensely popular in Vietnamese culture.
Some of the actors will have to fly, using single harness bungees for a more free-flowing choreography. These aerial feats alone would be challenging for a small off-off-Broadway company like Firebone, but Cragin-Day sees advantages in its size.
"We take risks," she said. "Companies like ours don't have much money at stake."
Still, the company bought extra insurance and hired Karen Fuhrman of Grounded Aerial, an expert in the field, to do the choreography.
"It gives us the freedom to experiment with the human body in flight," Cragin-Day said.
She believes the play will speak to many people, especially women.
"I feel like it's not just about Vietnamese women," she said. "This play captures that spiritual strength that is the legacy of women, and that's beautiful."
[Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors.]
By Retta Blaney | April 5, 2015
Interview with Don Nguyen about RED FLAMBOYANT
By Zachary Stewart | November 7, 2012
A Review of Son of a Gun
One wouldn't think that a musical about cancer and alcoholism would provide for a fun and diverting evening of theater, but Firebone Theatre's Son of a Gun, now playing at The Beckett Theatre, covers both of those things (and more) with grace, charm, and a kickass score that will leave you singing all the way home.
The audience is greeted by Cowboy Jesus (Ryan Link), a bedazzled cross and fringe-clad country rock messiah who introduces us to Winston Khrusty and the Appalachian Mourners, a touring family band with lots of issues. (Think the Partridge Family with an alcoholic dad). The oldest son, Danderhauler Agamemnon Khrusty (Van Hughes) wants to quit the band, but when his tyrannical father Winston (Jimmie James) is diagnosed with cancer, it falls upon Danderhauler to keep the tour going by stepping into his father's shoes as the band's lead singer.
What follows is a thoughtful examination of the lasting effects of alcoholism on a family, thanks to Chris Cragin's unpredictable book and Don and Lori Chaffer's pulsating and hauntingly beautiful music. These aren't your typical rock musical songs, but they're written with such clarity and dramatic purpose that they seem perfectly at home on stage.
The cast is not only perfect in their delivery of these tunes, but the sheer virtuosity of this tight ensemble is astounding. There is no band, spare the one in the play, so all of the music is produced by the actors on stage, each of whom plays between three and six different instruments.
Hughes has an irrepressible rock front-man energy that occasionally sends his body into spastic fits that are at once terrifying and thrilling to behold. He also exhibits spot-on chemistry with Rebecca Hart, who brings a lot of warmth to the role of Lucy Sunshine. And as Khrusty mom Elmadora, Lori Fischer delivers a heartbreaking performance of one the score's finest tunes, "All I Ever Wanted."
Director Gabriel Barre has staged the piece with the utmost economy of space and resources. Sound designer Josh Liebert and music director Martin Landry (who also doubles as "Angel Mike" onstage) also deserve a round of applause for delivering perfect balance (I never strained to hear an actor) to a rock musical in such an intimate space.
Anyone who has lived with (or loved) an addict will tell you that there are no easy answers. While this show is not prepared to offer them, it will get your brain thinking and your toes tapping over the course of 130 minutes – which is no mean feat!
By Allison J. Althoff | October 23, 2012
Interview with Don Chaffer about Son of a Gun
After years of writing music and producing records in Nashville, Don Chaffer—front man for the duo Waterdeep (with wife Lori)—takes a foray into the music theater world of New York. While Godspell andJesus Christ Superstar light up Broadway, Son of a Gun, a loosely autobiographical stage translation of Chaffer's 2006 "Khrusty Brothers" concept album, will be playing a few blocks away at the Firebone Theater, from Nov. 1-18.
Through the mouthpieces of lively characters like "Cowboy Jesus" and "Lucy Sunshine," the production—with music and lyrics by Chaffer—asks the hard questions of life.
Officially, it's being billed as "a quirky, darkly comic, rock musical that tells the story of Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty, the eldest of three sons of Winston and Elmadora Khrusty, and the heir apparent to the throne of the Khrusty family Appalachian band. Danderhauler's life is dominated by the charismatic personality of his father, a highly-functioning, highly-entertaining alcoholic. When Danderhauler meets the love of his life, Lucy Sunshine, they conspire to free him of the burden of his father's addiction, but their plans are thwarted by the surprising news of Winston's tongue cancer. Winston's tongue is promptly removed to save his life, forcing Danderhauler to step up as the new band leader. As the events that follow spiral out of control, Danderhauler clings to his love for Lucy to keep him upright. When even that window of hope is shattered, Danderhauler is forced to confront his dead father, which he does by means of an old fashioned cowboy duel."
Got that? We weren't exactly sure either, so we asked Chaffer to tell us all about it.
What inspired the 2006 album that ultimately was the source material for Son of a Gun?
That record had been done for the better part of two years before I released it. My father passed away in '03 of suicide, took his own life. In the wake of that, I found myself writing a different kind of song. I guess you could say it was a crisis of faith time, and I just started being interested in not pulling any punches when it came to asking whatever questions I felt like I needed to ask. The record reflects that.
Talk about the process going from album to stage.
I technically co-wrote a book called Son of a Gun with Chris Cragin Day. Chris's husband, Steve, thought it would make a good musical. That was just based on hearing the metaphorical flights of fancy and the parent backstory in the songs—and I just decided, sure. It's been many moons, probably five years, since we started. It's been an evolving process, and it's my first foray into storytelling of this scope, so it's not like I imagined it in the beginning. It's better.
Can you give us a sneak peek into the plot?
Son of a Gun presents an interesting mashup of music and narrative. And, from a story perspective, it's funny. It's a dark comedy with a serious arc to it. It addresses this question of family and how to hack your way through a life that can be filled with pain, and it asks where the redemption is in the midst of all of it.
Is it autobiographical?
The story emerged from my own life experiences. There are plenty of times where we would hit a roadblock in the narrative, like, What should we do next with this character or this thing? And I would say, "Well, here's what happened to me." And that would be the best dramatic solution to the problem. So there's times it's stunningly true to my own life, but, of course, I did not grow up in a family band. We were not from Appalachia. My dad didn't play guitar or sing. There were no duels anywhere. And so on. But in the story, there is this "Cowboy Jesus" character and his sidekick angel Mike and angel Gabe, and they have their own subplot throughout. So the production doesn't ignore the spiritual aspect of trials. It actually tackles it head on and tries to make some sense of it.
Will the musical style be similar to Waterdeep's work?
Waterdeep has been a mixed bag. If you've been keeping up with Waterdeep for the last four records, this isn't going to be any sort of surprise. I think it's in keeping with what we've been working toward in terms of tone and poetic voice and things like that.
The fun thing about music theater is it's the father/son story—the son trying to get out from his father's shadow. His dad runs this family band, and the show opens with him singing about how he's got to get away from dad. But a series of tragic turns occur that prevent that, and so it's sort of how the son deals with both the tragedy and the foiled plan of exodus. The fun thing is you get to see the two worlds colliding because the family band is like sort of bluegrass and southern gospel by way of Showbiz Pizza or Chuck E Cheese. It explores a wide variety of music. In other words, compared to Waterdeep, it's more variety and more fun. Then it has its pretty intense movements as well.
What role has your wife, Lori, played in developing Son of a Gun?
She was kind of my ace in the hole. I wrote a lot of the songs myself, but some of the best parts are co-writes with her. I would occasionally hit a wall, so I'd grab her to come upstairs and figure out how to help me with this song, that song. She was a godsend.
You've written a wealth of worship music. How has this project been different?
First of all, worship songwriting is a thing unto itself. I mean, it's music with purpose that's intended for communal use—for people getting together expressly in religious gatherings. So it's really a different thing from writing a pop song or folk song. Theater is a whole different arm of culture. The thing about theater is the intent. Particularly in New York, it's a great place to ask questions without fear of reprisal. There's a freedom to wrestle that I didn't use to have.
A lot of times, the evangelical bent is to give answers. But the theater ended up being this warm place to explore the realities and implications of certain emotions and actions. You would think that churches would have that kind of receptive environment because, ostensibly, faith addresses those very things—the consequences of actions and the sorting out of emotions surrounding life's most important questions. But I think evangelical Christianity got a little off the rails, like having to be able to report answers to all of life's questions.
For me, the ability to ask a question and watch it hang in the air as people regard it, address it, and bring their own questions to it, is therapeutic and faith-affirming. My understanding of the Christian faith is that Christ steps down into the midst of that stuff. He deigns to involve himself in the brutality of our questions, as opposed to being aloof, which is the stunning/miraculous/offensive reality of incarnational theology.
Why should people go see Son of a Gun?
Because it's awesome? (laughs) I think the marriage of narrative and music is amazing. For people that are fans of the kind of music we do—some sort of indie/alt/folk/rock category—we cover all those different things within the context of the piece. Getting to see that stuff married to narrative is really something. I have a complicated relationship with musical theater itself. I didn't think I liked it, and then once I got into it I realized how many musicals I had committed to memory from when I was a kid.
This is something that you have to go to New York and sit in a 99-seat theater to see. Watching people act for you in that close of proximity is a stunning experience. You can't help but be taken aback by how much these performers are willing to give. They're so committed and present. The experience of watching that happen is spellbinding and takes your breath away. At the end of the first act [of one of the early productions last summer], I broke down and sobbed. I think it has a sort of catharsis to it, and those kind of things can be rare and worth fighting to see.
What do you want audience members to walk away with?
This question of facing the painful parts of life and not withdrawing, and that the way through is love—that we embrace the loves in our lives as a means of dealing with the pain. The irony of course when you experience trauma, love appears to be the source of more pain, and as a reaction toward trauma we tend to shut down. Son of a Gun is about how that doesn't really work. That you can't go over it, you can't go under it, you can't go around it. The final song is called "Love Is Always Worth Fighting For." And I think it's really worth wrestling your way through all that's difficult to find the love in your life.
By Kyle Bennett | January 4, 2013
A review of Son of a Gun
“If there is no combat in love, then it has ceased.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard
A few weeks ago I arrived fashionably late to the folk-rock musical Son of a Gun at The Beckett at Theatre Row. I’ve learned by now, though, that tardiness is relative. Depending on how you see it, I was just in time. You see, as I transitioned from the foyer to my seat in the seemingly eternal abyss of optical darkness, I was greeted with a better greeting than the opening act. I was greeted by Cowboy Jesus (played by Ryan Link). And the rest of the musical was, as they say, history.
Cowboy Jesus stole my heart.
Before I reached my seat three feet away, Cowboy Jesus was my savior. I was filled with the Holy Ghost before I could sit down. In a matter of seconds I was entranced, laughing, involved, and absolutely oblivious to anything in my periphery. Door whispering, feet dragging, lips parting, smile budding, the chortle was birthed.
And, for most, that’s all she wrote. “What did you enjoy most?” I asked several. “Cowboy Jesus.” “Cowboy Jesus.” “Cowboy Jesus.” Cowboy Jesus was a big hit. I mean the guy plays drums. (Come to think of it, I read that somewhere in one of the so-called “Lost Gospels.”) But there’s more to enjoy about the musical than Cowboy Jesus, as much as it pains me to say so. Lord, have mercy.
Son of a Gun tells the tragic story of the Khrusty Appalachian band and tumultuous experiences of the eldest son Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty (Van Hughes). Lead by vocal foreman Winston Khrusty (Jimmie James), this family band is comprised of three rather silly, and at times naïve, folky brothers and their assertive, but wise mother, Elmadora Khrusty. We watch Danderhauler as he considers leaving the band, eventually lead it, fall in love and marry the tour’s opening act, Lucy Sunshine (Rebecca Hart), wrestle with his father’s choice to die from tongue cancer and cope with his lover’s miscarriage. It is a story of pain and love.
Its catchy score and excellent musical performances are no distraction.
Stylistically Son of a Gun blends the literal and figurative well. It performs the actual in its thick complexity and irony. Literally there is a son (an aspiring, musically promising, but existentially conflicted, Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty) with a gun and he is a son of a gun (an ambitious, emotionally absent, alcoholic father in Winston). Figuratively though, as we see in the end, a son is birthed through this gun. A duel brings peace. A wound brings healing. Death brings life, and the story of Danderhauler resonates on more than one level. It can captivate beyond simply exact circumstances. This is art in its most flattering stroke. No matter what genre of art one engages in, one cannot go wrong in capturing the “actual” in all its complex turmoil and angst, even if this done with a little dose of dark humor and irony. Son of a Gun does just this.
There was no dearth of valuable themes in this script. And evocation was not absent. It was meaningful. It was provocative. It was unsettling. It did violence to our comfort. And rightly so. In some sense, many of us were onstage. Those experiences were ours. Those questions came from our mouths. Those actions were ones we regretted. Perhaps still do. Son of a Gun is so human that it seems to bring us to the mirror of existence and let us see for ourselves how much our outline resembles that of others. In a rather twisted and concocted instance, its story is telling many of our stories.
That’s to be expected.
We are too eager to not be affected by those we long for. Our parents, siblings, spouses and professions hurt us (especially if our profession is playing in a band composed of our parents and siblings and our wife is the opening act). In some manner, and for some reason, our loved ones and things bring us pain. In some cases, they do us evil. That is certain. But, asSon of a Gun suggests, what isn’t certain is our response.
A musical brings us to the precipice of existential options and encourages us to choose wisely. It invites us to consider just how satisfying it really is to respond from pain, anger, and resentment. And in a dark, almost horrifying pivotal moment when Danderhauler confronts his dead father, it invites us to consider just how meaningful it would be to perpetuate the behavior of our offender, especially if that offender is someone so close to us.
In this pivotal moment Danderhauler has a choice: he can either imitate his father or change himself. He can either cower from his past or confront it. He can either despise his family or honor them. He can either let his trauma and pain destroy his marriage or make it the foundation upon which it stands. He can either offend others through his pain or heal them through a reckoning of his situation.
As we watch Danderhauler make poor and sensible choices throughout, and recollect the choices of his father, it draws our attention to the formidable nature and danger of ambition. Ambition can take many forms as he and his father can testify to: suppressing the past, leading a family appalachian band, wanting to be a good father. As their choices make clear, some days ambition looks more like denial or narcissism. As we see Danderhauler wrestle with his own ambition in relation to his father’s, we are invited to consider our own. And, by seeing the repercussions of his unfold on stage, we are tempted to discern right ones from wrong ones.
The talented guinea pig is there for our prudential benefit.
The right choice and the right kind of ambition require courage, hope and persistence. People like Danderhauler need help from mothers, brothers, and spouses. People like Danderhauler need to be reminded of the possible. People like that need time to heal. People, that is, like us. Like Danderhauler, we end up wounding ourselves by not dealing with our wounds. The shot that wounded him was a shot felt by the rest of us in that theater. It was a shot that many of us have ourselves been wounded by. And like Danderhauler we must attend to this wound.
The question is, do we accept the blood loss and let the lead set in or do we pull out the bullet and medicate and wrap the wound? Do we try to change what happened or do we try to create what can be? Do we fight for love or do we let it pass us by?
"Son of a Gun is a rollicking, penetrating musical. I left the theater brimming with gratitude." Ian Morgan Cron, author, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir...Of Sorts, A Barnes&Noble Discover Great New Writers author.
Texas Theater Journal Publication. by Caitlin Lee.
SON OF A GUN. By Don Chaffer and Chris Cragin. Directed by Gabriel Barre. Theatre Row, New York, NY. 11 November 2012.
The performance review section, which I have edited, includes a piece about the innovative new musical Once. As Beki Baker states in her performance review, nearly one year after it first premiered on Broadway and subsequently dominated the Tony Awards, Once continues to captivate audiences, selling out to packed houses and expanding its production worldwide. What struck me though, as I read Ms. Baker’s work, is how Once exemplifies what makes the development process in New York City so remarkable. As one production reaches the apex of its development, another stands closely by, hoping to capitalize on the success of its predecessor. Just a mere three blocks south from Once’s Bernard Jacobs Theatre, Son of a Gun, produced by Firebone Theatre at Theatre Row, is one such production.
Son of a Gun tells the story of Danderhauler Agamemnon Khrusty, the eldest son in a traveling family band, Winston Khrusty and the Appalachian Mourners. Danderhauler longs to leave the band, but when his father is diagnosed with cancer, he must lead his two younger brothers—along with the band’s opening act and his subsequent love interest, Lucy Sunshine—to keep the family’s tour afloat. Throughout the play, Danderhauler struggles with his disappointing relationship with his father, while seeking peace both personally and professionally. In the late 2000s, songwriter and musician Don Chaffer of the Nashville-based band, Waterdeep, composed a concept album, The Khrusty Brothers (Self Titled), in response to his overwhelming emotions following his father’s death. Eventually, Chaffer’s music reached Baylor University alumni Steven Day and Chris Cragin of Firebone Theatre, and with the help of Cragin, a New York-based playwright, Danderhauler’s story came to fruition. Chaffer’s score works well because of its ability to seamlessly incorporate different genres of music. As the bluegrass style of Winston Khrusty and the Appalachian Mourners and the rock ‘n roll performed by Danderhauler and Lucy Sunshine merge at the end of the play, the music of Son of a Gun serves to illustrate Danderhauler’s evolution both as a musician and character.
Along with the heartfelt music, the utilization of the actor-musician and an unconventional scenic design—all elements that contributed to the success of Once—are present in Son of a Gun. Through the scenic elements, Son of a Gun succeeds in creating an atmosphere that immediately invites the audience to become active participants in the production, not just mere spectators. While the size of stage of the Beckett Theatre in Theatre Row does not permit the audience to wander up, purchase drinks, or actually sit on the stage—as in the case of Once or even Spring Awakening: the Musical—upon entering the theatre and viewing Caite Hevner’s scenic design, the audience cannot help but speculate whether they are about to view an off-Broadway musical or a performance by a garage band. With a platform set center stage and scaffolding, which rises up into the proscenium, to hold instruments, the setting seems much more apt for a rock concert. However, upon closer inspection, subtle details of Hevner’s design come into focus, including a VW decal front and center stage, which represents the family’s van. With this design, Hevner and director Gabriel Barre provide glimpses into the Khrusty family’s intimate moments in a setting that allows for the music to guide the show.
As is the case for Once, Son of a Gun demands much from its actors as the performers comprise the show’s orchestra. Many songs, such as “Have Yourself a Good Time”, “We’re a Family Band”, and “One Life to Do What You Will”, are sung during the family band’s concerts, so having actors play instruments makes sense. However, the use of the actor-musician is not always organic as is the case during “Got to Get Away” when Van Hughes as Danderhauler makes an awkward cross to retrieve his guitar before the song begins. Luckily, instances like this are few. Ryan Link, as the omnipresent Cowboy Jesus, succeeds in playing the guitar, drums, and even bagpipes, all while his character serves as the moral compass of the show, continually watching over and guiding the Khrusty family. Lori Fischer is a stand-out performer as she provides rhythm and balance to the ensemble with both her washboard percussions and her performance as Elmadora, the family matriarch.
Son of a Gun premiered three days after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, which caused millions of dollars in damage and left countless New York and New Jersey residents without power. With audiences who were both physically and emotionally drained, Son of a Gun had a significant hurdle to overcome. In the closing number, “Love is Always Worth the Fighting For”, actors jump into the audience and encourage audience members to sing along with the final chorus; in doing so, people cannot help but clap their hands, tap their feet, and join the Khrusty family band in the final joyful moments of the play. The show succeeded in lifting spirits and providing respite during a very stressful time for New York City and can certainly do so in any other circumstance. In looking at the elements that both musicals share, if the success of Once foreshadows continuing musical theatre trends, Son of a Gun has a bright future ahead, both in New York and in theatres across the country.
Watch Broadway.com's video about SON OF A GUN
By Fern Siegel | September 16, 2009
A review of Emily
Emily Dickinson is one of our most esteemed and mysterious poets. By age 30, she refused to leave her home; in fact, she usually spoke to people through a partially opened door. Sensitive and intelligent, Dickinson has long intrigued scholars, who have speculated on the myriad reasons for her isolation. Emily, An Amethyst Remembrance lets the poet speak for herself; this deeply moving production sites historic record, but captures the essence of the artist via her work.
Now at the Kirk Theater, Emily relies on an economy of prose and direction to introduce her. It's aided by a lyrical script, thanks to Chris Cragin, and a strong ensemble, particularly Elizabeth Davis, whose Emily will steal your heart.
The play begins in 1860 and moves back in time. Long called the "belle of Amherst," this quiet, soulful woman is entranced by literature and obsessed with writing. The caveat: she won't share it with the world. Dickinson's genius wasn't discovered until her death, when her younger sister Lavinia found 1,775 poems in her room. Unique for the era, they contain short lines, lack titles and use unconventional punctuation and capitalization. Lauded on publication, they were heavily edited to conform to the period. In 1955, an unaltered collection of her poetry appeared, and Dickinson was heralded both as a modernist and wholly original voice, one of the greatest American poets.
But who was Emily Dickinson? Considered a local eccentric who dressed only in white, here she's a woman who disdains conventions, yet embraces friendship. Emily is an intimate drama that considers 12 years of her life, from ages 17 to 29. Set in the family home, we meet her sister-in-law and mother (Jenny Ledel), her sister Vinnie (Misty Foster Venters), brother Austin and father (Jared Houseman), and two close friends, played by Christopher Bonewitz.
While much of the play hews to known details, the playwright says she chose to "capture the Emily I experience when I read her poetry." To that end, we witness poetry as biography, charting the trajectory of Dickinson's momentary joys, as well as an exploration of the themes that occupied much of her work: immortality and death.
Though she has devoted siblings, her parents are disturbing: a sickly, detached mother and a tyrannical father. Dickinson, however, remains separate and distinct. She rejects the women's sewing group, despite the family's social standing, and spurns her friend Williamson's efforts to get her published. Finally, she agrees -- on the promise it carries no byline. "I like a look of Agony," she once wrote, which speaks to her reclusive existence.
Like Keats, Dickinson saw writing poetry as an exalted calling and dedicated her life to it. Unlike him, she had only a handful of poems published in her lifetime -- and never credited to her. Per Emily, she is an intriguing, albeit troubled character, and this marvelously spare effort, thanks to a beautifully calibrated cast, makes audiences want to read her anew.Emily gives us a rare treat: It lets us peak behind the door.