World Premiere of the Play by Michael Downing at Triangle Theatre


By Michael Downing
Directed by Joseph Cambone
At Triangle Theatre
Berkeley St. Boston

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Michael Downing is a local author who has written a pair of well-received novels, "In Our Time" and "Mother of God". Triangle Theatre gave his first play, "The Last Shaker", a staged reading last year, and now is presenting the world premiere, directed by Joseph Cambone. The script is founded on a promising analogy: Downing sees the situation of the Shakers in American society a hundred or more years ago as similar to the situation of uncloseted homosexuals today. Because of their rejection of marriage and procreation, the Shakers were reviled and cast out by the mainstream. In response, they created utopian communities where their spiritual insights could be embodied in the rounds of daily life. Now that the Shakers are gone -- there can't be a "Last Shaker", because the essence of Shakerism is communal-- the objects made by the Shakers to serve their vision are being appropriated by the mainstream, who see only "style' where they should be searching for for signs of enlightenment.

Janie Fleigel has designed for Triangle an austerely beautiful set, inspired by Shaker craftsmanship and representing the office at the Shaker Village Museum, where Phillip, Downing's main character, is the curator. Bill Mavis plays Phillip with surprising variety and charm, considering that Phillip is one of those exasperating people who don't know what they want, and can't bring themselves to DO anything. He's the sort of character, common in "literary" plays, who broods about whether the little that others require of him is distracting him from his all-important tasks of self-contemplation.

Murray Wheeler as Ward, Phillip's ex lover, and Maeve McGrath as Judith, Phillip's museum assistant, have the difficult job of bringing life to supporting roles that exist mainly to be supportive. John Rahal Sarrouf and Devery Dolman have an even harder job: bringing life to dead Shakers who don't exist as individuals, but are merely part of Phillip's consciousness. All these characters are in a tug-o-war, pulling at Phillip to exploit the Shaker heritage as another American "theme park", or pushing him to embody Shaker other-worldliness in a life of reclusive celibacy. Judith sums up the hero's dilemma: "Phillip is of two minds. He wants to be alone, and he wants to be loved."

Brian, a promiscuous HIV positive plumber who falls in love with Phillip during a one-night stand, tracks him down at the Museum and talks his way into employment there as a handyman. This young man uses his position to tug Phillip in yet another direction: toward the bars and political hotbeds of Boston. Brian, who on one level is pure erotic fantasy, is also the most fully written character in the play -- but the author's efforts go for very little because Craig Houk, the actor who plays Brian, is seriously miscast. Often what Downing has written and what Houk is playing are so at odds that they cancel each other out and "Brian" simply disappears, leaving a blank where there should be a force opposing the lure of the Shaker Life. Judith tells Phillip that the Museum is suffering because the curator is in love:"Your desires have replaced your ambitions. Well, it happens to women all the time -- and look how happy we are!" But the comparison doesn't quite hold in the imagination.

During most of the play, the "mainstream" barely impinges on Phillip. Francine Davis, as Phillip's mother, and Robert Bonotto as Brian's father, provide brief but vivid glimpses at the beginning and end.. But generally, "normal" Americans are present only by contrast with the extinct Shakers and the endangered Gays. Brian regards straight America as invincibly ignorant: "They don't even know we saved their blue jean industry!" And since Brian, as an AIDS victim, knows that his days are numbered, he is in a hurry to make each of them count. "We have to invent a new family. We have work to do."

Late in the evening, the spirit of one of the cult's craftsmen points out to Phillip that Shakers were less efficient than similar workers out in the world. He tells Phillip that' s because Shakers feel obliged to do the work, but not necessarily to finish it: they aren't in a race with time. Time is but an aspect of eternity. In one of the play's most effective scenes, two very old ladies (Davis and Maura O'Brien), "discovered" living together in a New England town even as the lone Shaker resident in the Village Museum dies, expand on this theme to the visiting museum staff. Judith believes that the sisters are frauds, trying to make a survivor's claim against the Museum's ownership of the Shaker remains. She questions them like a lawyer, but Phillip looks for a soul-saving message in the old girls' jokes and parables.

The Triangle production is the second in the Boston area to explore this territory. Last summer Centastage put on an original musical, "Shakerman", which also had a gay relationship at its center. Both shows equated the ecstatic experience of Shaker worship with the transports of same-sex coupling, and both looked toward the segregated Shaker society for non-patriarchal models of human relationship. Both, also, tried to find an alternative to Oedipal striving as a motivating force for a drama. Neither was convincing at the level where it counts: the emotional journey through the plot. But "The Last Shaker" contains enough intelligence and passion to make the trip worthwhile for an adventurous audience, even if it turns out to be more of a guided tour than a pilgrimage.

It is wonderful that our local companies are giving us the opportunity to see talented writers struggling to shape a new set of insights, based on the experience of the intentional communities of New England. One of the pleasures of Downing's script is its use of local references, and its peculiar New England slant on the age-old dramatic question, "How ought we to live?" Like the Transcendentalist ideal of "plain living and high thinking", the homegrown Shaker vision provides a counter-myth to the drive for conquest, acquisition, and progeny known as the American Dream.