As healing as any piece of theater can be: Third Rail Repertory
Theatre's "Recent Tragic Events," through March 12
at CoHo Theater in Northwest Portland.
a peculiarly healing purpose
from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
It may be safe to say that when a school kid can tell a joke about
a tragic event that involves its most intimate victims, it's a fair
if not infallible indication that the healing in the national psyche
over that event is in its last cycle.
The kid tells the joke, unaware that the ramifications of the tragedy
continue on into his culture, affecting him directly or indirectly
as each successive generation forgets a little more about why.
However, healing times vary and jokes may not always be so much
of an indicator as they are a defense mechanism against the pain.
Almost 20 years ago, jokes about the Challenger space shuttle explosion
came almost immediately after it happened while people were still
numb with shock. As a result, every school kid of a certain age
knew Christa McAuliffe's last words: "What does this little
In Third Rail Repertory Theatre's superb new production of "Recent
Tragic Events," writer Craig Wright ("Six Feet Under")
asks, "What would a flip of this coin do?"
When a tragedy is as epic as 9/11, a response from the arts and
entertainment community that goes beyond the initial gallows humor
is required. It can be a long time in coming, and it's really hard
to make it successful on an artistic level for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, no one wants to be accused of trying to make money
off of it, and if it's not perfect, it's judged harshly.
On the day of 9/11, anything any artist was working on felt as
if it became instantly meaningless. Some continued writing anyway,
in hopes of ending up with something that approached truth.
Last year, Portland Center Stage tried valiantly with an excellent
production of one of these plays, "Another Fine Mess,"
which inadvertently became the poster child for this problem. It
seemed like there were two entirely different plays bound up in
one and one was a really clever comedy full of world theater
references and light banter about petty differences between egocentric
actors backstage before a performance.
My guess is that it was written just before 9/11, then, after that
day, was considered pointless. That is, until the writer salvaged
it by lashing it onto an inconclusive Act II, a landscape of sudden,
massive destruction where suddenly every line was globally symbolic
and the characters lost their individual personalities to become
victims of all war and violence throughout the ages.
It's as if the playwright was floating in a sea of inarticulate
shock and pain and could only barely manage to get us all out of
the pit with a vague image of peace and love in the figure of a
boy and a boombox with a really pretty song at the end. But in the
immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was all an audience had available
that wasn't soaked in the literalism and horror of Ground Zero.
So it's been as hard to watch attempts by writers to make sense
of 9/11 as it has been for them to write about it. But now it's
time for something completely different, which is why I wholeheartedly
and unreservedly recommend this current production of "Recent
Tragic Events," the first of what I hope are many more productions
to come from Third Rail.
Now that it's been three and a half years since the events of 9/11,
and even though there is nothing funny about it for anyone living
in the aftermath, the tragedy may possibly now be served well by
comedy, especially if it is comedy that takes us away from Ground
Zero to a safer place like an apartment in the Midwest where
a blind date is struggling to get off the ground even as fresh news
about the WTC tragedy is blaring from the TV.
of universal suffering: a heartbreaking but engaging face on
the tragedy of 9/11.
Even though we are safely halfway across the country in this story,
we're instantly reminded of how close we all felt to New Yorkers
that day. But we are put into the middle of a situation that we
quickly grow to care about and, incredibly, Wright makes us laugh
out loud in the course of things. In the bargain, he slyly guarantees
that we will never look at Joyce Carol Oates in the same way again.
It's not that it's "time to move on" so much as it's
time to switch tactics in dealing with 9/11 and all the political
fallout that has come with it. It's as if we've all been gorging
on raw footage, testimonials, eulogies and Bruce Springsteen songs,
and now we need something to help us back away and digest.
Michael Moore stepped up with "Fahrenheit 9/11," pointing
an antic finger on the big screen at the ones in charge who screwed
up. More intimately, HBO's series, "Rescue Me," starring
comedian Dennis Leary, features the ghost of a firefighter who died
in the WTC collapse and is still deeply (and sometimes absurdly)
invested in the lives of his family and friends. "Rescue Me"
is a funny, dark show and, while not exactly uplifting, it is fulfilling
a very serious purpose as we all try to find emotional recovery.
But even more intimately affecting than a TV show is the phenomenon
of live actors performing extraordinarily well in a small theater
space with nothing between them and their audience. In one character's
case, not even underwear gets in the way.
The playwright starts "Recent Tragic Events" by having
a member of the audience flip a coin to determine the direction
that the play will take. Each time a character makes a decision
which depended on the coin flip, a "tone" sounds to let
us know. This device is used to hilarious effect throughout Act
As we all know, performances do vary.
The performance I saw early in the run was laugh-out-loud funny.
Weeks later, the play still haunts. The ensemble was tight, the
work was specific, the ideas were provocative and, at the end of
the play, I was moved to tears.
I enjoyed every single cast member's performance. Even Jack A.
LeMieux, the stage manager with the coin, is endearingly self-effacing.
Valerie Stevens as Nancy, the soul of simplicity, is dignified
and funny without saying a single word until Act II, when
she finally has a hilarious and expressive hand in how events play
The comic panic of Stephanie Gaslin (playing Waverly, a woman valiantly
trying to hold it together on her blind date as she waits for the
phone to ring with news of her twin in New York City) keeps the
reality of surrounding events alive and puts a heartbreaking but
engaging face on the tragedy of WTC.
In counterpoint to Gaslin's emotionality, Tim True is the superb
emotional enigma of the play as Andrew, her date. He's a guy so
tightly wound that he makes each act of decision making seem physically
painful, simultaneously full of dread and hope.
Third Rail Repertory Theatre (from left): Tim True, Slayden
Scott, Stephanie Gaslin, Valerie Stevens, Rachel Brodkey, and
The subtle interactions between True and Gaslin are like watching
a complicated but fascinating mating dance between long-legged birds
who would much rather take flight than fight. They adeptly capture
the ineffable point the playwright makes about the inevitability
and helplessness of human entanglements.
This in turn beautifully mirrors the larger issue of a nation helplessly
watching a catastrophe that was always just waiting to happen. Andrew's
decision at the end, whether or not to get involved when confronted
with Waverly's pain, is both affirming and disturbing at the same
time. True handles it subtly and beautifully.
The sensitivity with which director Slayden Scott handles all the
actors in the moments leading up to that instant is powerfully on
the mark as we watch them struggle against all the outside forces
shoving them together or in the case of Michael O'Connell's
character, Waverly's perpetually stoned neighbor Ron, apart.
Especially masterful is a wordless 10-minute card-game sequence
at the top of Act II that serves up themes of forced choices, fate
and affectionately honoring the dead even as it hilariously entertains.
Because the ensemble is so tight that each character could probably
take turns dominating the play on any given night, the particular
performance I saw belonged, if one must choose, to Michael O'Connell.
His Ron is a wise fool in the best Shakespearean sense as he cosmically
ladles out the deeper questions and truths of the play: What are
we doing here? Do we have any real say in the matter? And how do
we go about dealing with the answers?
I'd thought I'd seen enough freeloading neighbors wandering in
and out of the action of various comedies, but O'Connell transcends
the difficulties of the script and injects the character with incredible
humanity, humor, empathy and insight.
There are lines in "Recent Tragic Events" that are not
innately funny but OConnell makes them so, while infusing
the script with more timing, fluidity and grace than is actually
there. His characterization is so complete that I did not recognize
him (until I read his bio) as the impassioned, articulate art aficionado
that he had played so deftly opposite Tim True and Alan Nause in
Artists Rep's "ART" a couple of seasons ago, or even as
one of the performers in "Another Fine Mess," the problematic
but nevertheless worthy post-9/11 effort mentioned earlier.
Both plays do have elements of universal suffering that I strongly
believe will mean more in years to come than they do now to today's
still shell-shocked audience, as the deeper themes of helplessness
in the face of violence and the capacity of the individual's heart
to adequately comfort, inevitability sink in.
All told, I appreciate the difficult task all 9/11 writers have
set for themselves to tackle this particularly sensitive subject.
Before their efforts are dismissed as "failures," which
a lot of critics will inevitably do, I would like to point out that,
for this generation anyway, the reaction to the material is going
to be highly subjective and colored by one's own story of that day
much like that play of another generation, "Kennedy's
That play has not held up particularly well over time, but it did
serve a peculiarly healing purpose for its own time.
This alone would be a good reason to see "Recent Tragic Events."
The use of actual TV reports in the sound design is emotionally
hard to hear. But the play highlights the fact that there are these
raw bits of grief parts still hanging off the edges of the national
psyche, which is something that should be brought to light again
and again until, like the Kennedy assassination, scars can replace
the open wound.
"Recent Tragic Events" is not a perfect play, but it's
a very good play that is smart, very funny and admirably realized.
It is ultimately as healing as any piece of theater can be at this
particular point in our history.
It doesn't shy away from the big questions, either. Questions like:
Are we really as in charge as we think we are? And: We always should
do the right thing but when are we forced to?
And, with a puppet as one of the main characters, it comically
begs the other question: Are we just pompously spouting concepts
with which we've been brainwashed while pretending not to notice
the massive hand up our butts controlling our every reaction?
Third Rail is off to a great start, and they are to be commended
for choosing such socially relevant material as an inaugural piece.