Through what is a kind of fluke, really, I am regularly offered two free tickets (designated for the press) to plays at the Marin Theater Company in Mill Valley in Marin County. I had written a review for America of the Jesuit playwright, Bill Cain's play, "Equivocation." My review somehow came to the attention of people at the Marin Theater Company which planned to mount their own version of "Equivocation." They, then, also sought my advice on some technical historical questions about Jesuits in England and about the pronunciation of a few Latin phrases in Cain's play.
The Marin Theater Company is an ambitious and excellent theater company. Among other things, they commission each year new plays. Hence, last year they put on the world premiere of Bill Cain S.J.'s compelling play about a soldier involved in a war crime, "9 Circles." I reviewed it in a blog post for America. This year's commissioned new play, "Bellwether," is by playwright Steve Yockey. Yockey has written a number of plays, based on fairy tale stories, for young people: "Animal Versus Animal" and "Tall Tales." In a sense Bellwether is a fairy tale for adults. Yockey, early on, became fascinated with fairy tales and the way they present lessons (often of fear and distrust). In Little Red Riding Hood, for example, the lesson is essentially: "Don't trust strange men. They just want to have sex with you. Little girls beware!"
Contemporary humans have no less a need for story telling than did the children for whom the fairy tales were written. Sometimes the media ( especially television) becomes the prime purveyor of stories for us. Yockey notes how often he has heard in the media stories about a child disappearing. There follows a media frenzy and, after a certain amount of time, if the child is not found, suspicions arise ( whether they are really warranted or not) which turn to the parents. He also says that often enough we do not finally get resolution on many of these stories. As he states it: " When I started Bellwether there were a lot of stories in the news about missing children. I remember thinking how strange it was, this mob mentality, the way an entire community will turn on people based on supposition or circumstance."
Bellwether tells the story of just one such child disappearance and the unwarranted suspicion cast on her parents ( for neglect, for bad parenting, for actual commission of the crime!) by erstwhile 'friendly' neighbors. The town is presented, at the beginning, as a gated, idyllic, suburban community--a nice, safe, friendly place to live. People knew each other. They looked out for each other. Bad things, surely, did not and could not ever happen there. But when six year old Amy Draft goes missing, the police investigation, speculation in the media and in the neighborhood raise lurking suspicions about Amy's parents.
They, too, as often in such crises, blame one another. Was Amy's mother just a little bit zonked out from too much wine to notice the disappearance? Would it have happened if her father had come home on time from his long commute to work in the city ? As the play unfolds, we discover that her disappearance is not what it seems. After her, nine other children also disappear. By a certain irony, the play was premiering in just such an idyllic suburb, picture post-card Mill Valley.
Yockey makes much of the role of the ' news' in the unfolding growth of distrust in the gated community. He notes that he usually puts ' news' in quotation marks. All too commonly, the news seems to be, generally, getting more and more salacious. There is a competitive market for news and for an audience. Often enough, the more frightening the news can be, the more intense it can be, the more likely it draws viewership. As Yockey puts it:" Fear sells." Moreover, what we get as ' news' is selected. Rarely, also, do we really see completion in these salacious news stories. We are presented with some horrible thing that happened and are told of efforts being made to rectify the situation. But as Yockey says: " whether it is an investigation or recovery from a storm that hit, we rarely see the follow up on it. We only see the awful thing." Hearing Yockey, I reflected on my reading statistics, last year, about a spiraling spate of sensationalistic stories of urban crimes on television and newspapers, just as other, more carefully calibrated, statistics were showing the rate of urban crimes actually decreasing!
I came away from the play reminded that no gates ( to suburbia or elsewhere) can block out the realities ( including the evils and human foibles) of the larger world. Many suburbs try to filter out ( by cost of housing or zoning laws) so-called undesirables. Once again, however, we are seeing a rise in poverty rates and urban crimes in our so-called safe suburbs. I also came away with a strong sense of our vulnerabilities. Seeming steadfast neighbors can find and devise ways to gossip and turn on one another. Fear, unmitigated and un-reflected upon, feeds frenzy and suspicion. Homogeneity does not breed true safety. Nor, of course, is there really a ' fortress' America, invulnerable to global impact (financial or from immigration). As in fairy tales, so, in so-called safe enclaves, Gods and monsters still exist.
In the play, Amy is finally found. Her parents decide to leave their safe enclave to move back to the city. These main characters have, through the horrible ordeal, finally learned something about each other, their marriage and the need not to project on others their own fears and shadow side. The other missing children are not found. The rest of the town, at the end of the play, falls into a kind of dulling denial of what happened, a ritual of self-congratulation in living in such a safe enclave free from all darkness, malice and sin. Perhaps, as an antidote, they should, as a town, have watched all those television portrayals of the ' real' housewives of Orange County! Only virtue and a genuine sense of true solidarity, not gated communities, will ever preserve us from the worst taints of human folly and sin.
John A. Coleman, S.J.