Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Notes from the director to the cast and production team

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

by Lisa Kornetsky, Director

THEMES:  I see three central themes in the play:

  • The search for love
  • Loneliness as part of the human condition, and
  • Human empathy and forgiveness

While Inge calls the play a comedy, this is a serious comedy and the themes that hold the play together are not about the extremes of human nature and behavior, but rather about those things that bring us together and, ultimately, keep us apart.  Pathos is never far from the surface of the play.  Many of the things that the characters say and do are amusing, but we should be laughing with the characters, and not at them.  I think it is important to be clear about these themes so that we focus on Inge's compassion and insight into the characters rather than the occasional cliché or caricature.  Bluster, heartache, laughter - are all part of the world that is created on this one night, in this small Kansas town, and through these relatively innocent characters, we see a reflection of a world that can be very harsh, cold, and lonely, but one that has moments of laughter and joy as well.

In Act I, speaking of the storm, Will, the sheriff, says, "It's just like all the elements had lost their reason."  In my most recent reading of the play, that line spoke to me in a new way.  On this night - in the 4-5 hours that these 8 people are together in this café - the world seems a little off-kilter.  We have this window of time that allows us to see the desires, the desperation, and the secrets that these individuals have.  They come together, literally and figuratively, and a lot happens in this single night.  There is the possibility of love, salvation, connection, and human understanding.  And yet, at the close of the curtain, not much has really changed.  It has been fleeting, in most cases, and the future is not necessarily any clearer or any rosier than it was at the beginning.  The café, on this night, is a refuge for all the characters but the journey for all of these characters goes on, and the journey for most of them is a lonely and isolated one.  There is almost a longing for a simpler life, one that brings people together and keeps them together.  The path for Dr. Lyman, Cherie, Virgil, and Grace has been a lonely one.  In this evening each of them (along with the other characters) has moments of real human connection.  But what happens in the future for them?  Here in this café, not much really changes and the journey that the bus passengers and townspeople are taking doesn't necessarily lead them where they hope to go.

Almost every character in the play is either searching for love or dealing with the loss of love.   That vision of love is filled with an overwhelming loneliness and I believe that Inge is talking about the search for love and connection (not just romantic love), the idealization of love, and the loss of love as a kind of isolation that is part of the human condition. The characters are all versions of ordinary people, set in an ordinary place, on an oppressive, cold and snowy night. Everyone is stuck - both literally and figuratively - and most (not all) of them are in the same place when they leave as they were when they entered. In one night we learn a bit of their lives and the journeys that each of them are on. Nothing profound really happens but hopefully we leave with a sense of real compassion for these characters and their lives.  We have some hope for Cherie and Bo, although the differences between them don't bode well for a happy future.  We know that Dr. Lyman can't change and his life is one of self-loathing.  Grace and Carl may continue with their 'affair' but we know that it will be fleeting in the few moments the bus is in town now and then.  Virgil is alone at the end of the play - his close connection to Bo isn't over but it is time for him to move on - to what, we don't know.  But we do know that the café has closed and for the time being, he is out in the snow.  Perhaps the one character we can feel has a happier future is Elma.  She grows up a bit this night and we know that this town won't hold her interest for much longer.  Her future seems bright at the end of the play.  While the others get on the bus and continue down that same path, I believe that Elma represents someone who may 'get out' or get off the metaphorical bus.

Almost all of the characters in the play make mistakes.  Some of these might be perceived as 'moral mistakes' (particularly in the era of this play) such as Cherie's promiscuity or Dr. Lyman's proclivity for young girls.  Bo is constantly offending and getting in his own way and Elma is so innocent that she almost falls into Dr. Lyman's trap.  Carl may be married (this is not clear), and so on.  But Inge doesn't judge his characters.  They are flawed human beings who struggle, make mistakes that they can't change, fix them when they can, and move on.  We, hopefully, empathize with these characters, but they are also very generous with one another.  The need to forgive - whether it is for specific actions or personal flaws - is strong in this play.

From what I know about Inge's life, the way he paints all of his characters reflects, the struggles of his own experience.  Inge grew up in Independence, Kansas and struggled with his homosexuality at a time and place where that knowledge was difficult to understand and/or accept.  It may not be easy now, but we can imagine what it was like in the Midwest in the 1920's.  He was a sensitive boy who grew into a man who was crushed by negative criticism and reviews. He was also an alcoholic and I think we can see a lot of his feelings about himself in the lines that Dr. Lyman speaks.   While a kind man, it seems that Inge was looking through his plays for a simpler past.  He created wonderful characters who speak their truth, hide their secrets, and struggle to 'fit in', just as he did throughout his life.

That being said, this isn't a tragedy.  There are some very funny lines, and wonderful moments that we will play for all their joy and humor, but underneath it all these characters are mostly driven by the need to connect (as we all are).  There are moments when they do, and those are the ones that we will be sure to express in all their dimensions.  It is within the world that these characters function that allows us to enjoy and laugh with them, even as we understand the difficulties that they face.

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