by Susan Harris
When I was in college, I saw Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and loved it so much I kept trying to get my friends to see it with me. I dragged Emily, future veterinarian, and Su, future fashion designer, with me to the local art cinema. After it was over, I eagerly turned to them and demanded to know what they thought of it. “It looked like the horses were being pretty well treated,” said Emily. Su added, “I couldn’t help noticing that all of their lovely 15th century period costumes were machine-sewn.”
You look for what matters to you, is what that conversation taught me. Which perhaps explains why, right after “THAT WAS AWESOME,” one of my first reactions after watching the show on opening night was, “I’m just going to go backstage and fix the babies.” Clearly, I need to do more aggressive wear and tear testing before turning the props over to the cast. But the babies are rewrapped now and the cardboard scissors are reinforced, so I can now talk about the show qua show, having finally seen it.
I was in the first Christopher Durang-filled show that Corinna directed. It was a great time, but I didn’t have the same extravagant love for For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls that Corinna obviously did. I was prepared to feel that way about The Marriage of Bette and Boo, but in fact, when I first read it before auditions I was immediately intrigued by it. It is funny–REALLY funny–but what Corinna really understands about this play, and what the cast has done such a great job of bringing through, is that Matt’s often quite biting portrayal of his parents, grandparents, and aunts is fueled not by contempt or hatred, but by a hurt and baffled love which is forever searching for a mode of expression that could be both honest and kind. If it takes Matt the entire play to find it, that’s because so many of the people he loves are so messed up. It puts me in mind of a famous Philip Larkin poem called “This Be The Verse, ” which begins: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” Which is undeniably true; but then so is the poem’s final stanza, when the speaker notes that there’s only one way to avoid passing on “misery” from generation to generation: “Get out as early as you can,/ And don’t have any kids yourself.” If you have kids, you inevitably make them miserable. But the upside is, they exist.
Creatively and academically, I think, we all do our most interesting work when we write about things that are important, but which we don’t understand. That’s what Durang is doing in The Marriage of Bette and Boo. Matt doesn’t understand his family, in general; but the thing he clearly understands least is Bette’s determination to have more children. Durang seems to identify with Boo’s grief over the babies–and you can really feel it in this production–but Bette’s experience is more complicated. She often buries her darkest feelings under a kind of hyper cheerfulness that gives the play much of its energy; but Durang also includes a few scenes in which Bette is alone with her emotions. No two are alike, and they’re never what you would expect. Scene 27, in which Bette is finally doing something most spectators would see as appropriate for a bereaved mother (laying flowers on her children’s graves and repeating their names) is quickly overtaken by absurdity as Bette’s infantilizing A. A. Milne fixation returns. And yet, at the same time, what Bette says to Father Donnally–“I don’t see why I should have to go through all this suffering”–is a tragic lament that goes all the way back to the Book of Job. If the other characters see Bette’s suffering as self-inflicted (because she continues to try to get pregnant, knowing the likely outcome), that line points out something that can get lost under all the hilarity: for Bette, the infertility itself is suffering, regardless of how she copes with it. If she stopped getting pregnant, that would make it easier on Boo, Matt, and the rest of the family. It’s less certain that it would make things any easier for Bette. She has a right to that line. It’s just unfortunate for her that she’s saying it to a priest whose idea of how to help his parishioners through an existential crisis is to force them to watch his impersonation of bacon. And that scene, let me say–which immediately follows all this poignancy–is one of the funniest things I have ever seen on the HPCP stage.
Corinna’s audition form included a question probing how we felt about dead baby jokes. For a lot of spectators I imagine that this is probably the most shocking aspect of Bette and Boo. But for me, that’s what made the play matter. I’ve had my own infertility saga, though fortunately it didn’t involve miscarriage or stillbirth. Many women I know who started trying to get pregnant in their 30s have infertility sagas, and some of those do involve miscarriage and stillbirth. The phrase “dead baby” itself really captures the kind of humor that animates Bette and Boo: the enforced coupling of two words that ought to have nothing to do with each other is both tragic and comic. The word “dead” mocks and taunts every expectation packed into the word “baby.” And that’s really the whole play: expectations mocked by reality. And that’s life. And it’s tragic, and it’s also funny. And everyone in this show gets that, and that’s why it’s so good.
In addition to the wonderful cast, I want to shout out to the production team and the running crew. The Marriage of Bette and Boo has 33 scenes, 18 of which occur in the first act. The only other play we’ve done that comes close to this kind of structure is The Good Doctor. For every transition there’s a lighting change, a music cue, a new furniture arrangement, and often a new set of props. The set design is both simple and effective–the curtains work just like doors but do not create all the technical problems, and they are much more interesting to look at–and the transitions are smooth and speedy. I mention this because I know how hard it is to achieve and it’s something most spectators take for granted (whereas I, for reasons many of you will vividly remember, do not). The whole cast sings the opening song, and the sound really fills the hall. The whole thing is magical. I am really proud to have been a part of it.
The second weekend starts tonight, and I wish I could see it again. Since I can’t–I’ll be away–I hope a lot of other people will go see it for me. Every show’s cast is a unique family of its own, and this one includes a lot of new arrivals, which is always tremendously exciting. (Let us hope they don’t all move away immediately afterwards.) This family is going to break up after Sunday, March 12, though of course everyone will stay in touch, and hopefully some of them will see each other again auditioning for Clybourne Park. Go see them before it’s all over. They’re doing a fantastic job with this play, the heartbreak and the hilarity of it. AND, it also has one of the largest cakes we have ever put on stage.