Information, reviews, and miscellaneous shorts focusing on professional, nonprofit theater—from a Southeast Minnesota perspective.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Metal Children

By Adam Rapp, directed by Megan K. Pence
Commonweal Apprentice Company
March 30, 2012

The Commonweal’s apprentice company production has proved to be a rewarding investment of my theater-going time the past 4 years. While The Metal Children may not rank with last year’s Metamorphosis, it remains a compelling piece of theater, doing what art at its best should do: ask the important questions.

In Rapp’s play, a small town in the Midwest is banning a book called The Metal Children, and the High School English teacher who uses the book has invited the author to town to defend the work. This sets up a classic confrontation between the artistic, freedom-of-expression, led by the author, against the small-town evangelical church and the small-minded school board. However this classic standoff doesn’t really take place—the author of the book seems clueless as to how to defend the book.

The play centers on the young adult fiction author Tobin Falmouth, played by Gary Danciu.  Danciu spends most of the play struggling to clear the fog from his head: early it is an alcohol and drug induced haze, later it is a daze caused by cracked ribs and an inability to come to terms with a world where an entire town has taken his fiction seriously. The audience waits for the protagonist to wake up and act heroically. It doesn’t happen.

High school senior, Vera Dundee, played by Rachel Kuhnle, on the other hand, is willing to defend the book and is clear about what the book means and what it calls her to do. Kuhnle has captured the often militant surety of a cause that young adults often embrace. She has hints of adolescent sweetness, but chillingly acts out a zealous response to Falmouth’s book.

Like all good theater, this play has my mind returning to the play in the days since I saw it. Rapp and director Pence keep the meaning ambiguous, not allowing for easy, comfortable compartmentalizing of the play: Is this play about the importance and power of literature? Is the play about censorship? Is the play about the responsibility of the community to guide its youth? Is this a play about the role of religion in the public schools? Rapp seems to keep the audience off balance with a musty controversy that most of the audience likely entered the theater thinking they understood.

When I do think of the play, I often think of the post show conversation with the company more than the play itself. I can’t help but think that the company was a bit disappointed by the questions and comments from those who stayed to discuss the play. One group of questions expressed frustration that Falmouth remained largely detached and missed his opportunities to do the right thing. As audience members, we are hoping for the protagonist to rise to the occasion, but the verisimilitude of the play would make this unlikely. Falmouth does grow in the play: he is able to move from a self-absorbed despondency to a self-absorbed sobriety and productivity. Taking on the full responsibility of an altruistic adult would have been too much to ask in the short arc of the play. Likewise, Vera has significantly matured in the year since the showdown over the book. But she too has only come so far. She is sobered by the impulsive choice she made and is now making adult responses to her situation. Yet she hangs on to her infatuation with Falmouth’s fictional characters. Roberta Cupp (Carla Joseph) speaks eloquently for her church, which is leading the charge against the book. She is able to have brief moments of human connection with Falmouth, but not the breakthrough that the audience longs for.

Another set of audience questions placed the blame on the high school English teacher for not properly guiding the students through a potentially dangerous book. I think this response is an understandable one: to blame the book would be to come down on the side of censorship, so it must be someone’s fault. After all, 40 girls ran away from the small town, many intentionally becoming pregnant, and one girl commits suicide. But if it is the English teacher’s fault that the 40 girls ran away in response to the book, then it must be the religious community’s responsibility that Tami Lake’s understanding of a different book caused her to turn toward suicide.

Rapp’s treatment of the interactions of characters on stage maintains a reliable verisimilitude, even while the play is surrounded by the inconceivable in a way that the audience doesn’t question. For example, a full-sized statue of Tami Lake appears just after she commits suicide. Forty-girls from a small town high school are moved by a work of fiction enough to secure a mortgage on a farm in Montana and move there before any of their parents are able to stop them. And most fantastic of all, everyone in the small town seems to have read the book and knows more about what is in the book than the clueless author. Even those who hate its content readily tell the author what a great writer he is—the vigilante thugs even quote from the book. This tendency of the audience to accept the fantastic perhaps leaves the audience willing to blame someone—the author, the church, the school—for actions that are highly unlikely while missing the point of the teen suicide which is all too common.

While Rap’s play, and presumably Commonweal’s interpretation of the play, doesn’t provide answers to the questions and doesn’t provide us with a feel-good protagonist who saves the day, there is a pivotal scene where the English teacher, Stacey Kinsella (Brandon Grayson), lying on what might be his death bed, asks Falmouth to read a specific passage from his book. In the passage, a girl tells her father that she is pregnant. The scene is full of both fear and hope, as the girl’s future lies with the father’s response. We never learn what the father says, but from what the play does disclose about the book, the father missed his opportunity.

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