by Maria Edmundson, Directing Fellow on Other Desert Cities
One of the first things I thought of when I heard about the Boston Marathon Bombing was a line from Other Desert Cities: “What if there is another attack?” That Monday was our day off, and I knew that the next day we were going to return to a very different rehearsal room than the one we had left.
Other Desert Cities is a play about many things. One of the central stories is that of Henry Wyeth, a long gone son and brother who was implicated as a young man in an act of terror committed to protest the Vietnam War. His family does not talk about him or anything that happened. They move on. Thirty years later, the Wyeths are still dealing with this event and its aftermath, which is what we see in Other Desert Cities.
After the Boston bombing, we could not do in the rehearsal room what the Wyeths did in their home. We – the director, the stage managers, the actors, and I, as an assistant and student of the process – had to talk about what had happened, first as human beings and then as artists. “What happened? What do we know? What are the details?” we asked, because the answers to these questions might help us understand the huge underlying “Why?” of it all. We talked about the family and friends we had in Boston. We talked about other attacks. We talked about who was behind this one.
Eventually, our conversation turned to the play. How would we feel if one of our loved ones was implicated in an act of terror? What would we do or not do to help and protect him? What would come first if national security was at risk: family or nation; mercy or justice? How would the audience relate to the events of the play and these characters in light of recent events?
I’ve realized that how we answered the questions Boston raised is ultimately less important than posing the questions. Our job is to engage the audience and tell the story. The job of the audience is to open themselves to the story. Jon Robin Baitz, the playwright, has begun a conversation. The final word on whether the Wyeths are right or wrong or somewhere in between belongs to the audience.
When the bombing happened, we were at the moment of the rehearsal process that Helen Carey (who plays Polly Wyeth) described in a post-show discussion as the transformation of the cast from a group of actors into a family. The actors were getting off-book, the broad strokes of blocking had been plotted out, and this is when the real fun begins. In theatre, the slogging comes first and then the director and actors can play, explore, and experiment. It was incredible to watch this remarkable group of artists work and begin to soar. I watched as Kyle Donnelly, the director, and the actors found layer after layer together: the funny, dry, harsh, ugly, strong, vulnerable, beautiful, and heartbreaking. The events in Boston were just one more layer that Kyle and the cast let settle within themselves and within their rich, rich performances.