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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Confirming Reality (on Douglas Messerli's play, The Confirmation)

A scene from The Confirmation
Kirk Jackson as Blanche in The Confirmation
The cast, director (Mollie O'Mara, first figure in the back row) and playwright after the performance of
The Confirmation

Kier Peters The Confirmation (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1993)
Kier Peters The Confirmation Vineyard Theatre (as part of the T.W.E.E.D. New Works Festival) /April 6 and 7, 1994

Almost from the moment in September 1991 when we returned to Jerry Fox’s condominium after the memorial ceremony for Howard’s mother Rose, I took out pen and paper and began to write the play The Confirmation.

Obviously, Rose’s death—I was close to both of Howard’s parents—triggered something in me about mothers, grandmothers, daughters, and sons—although the Midwestern women of the play could not be more different, in their language and mannerisms, than the Baltimore-raised Rose Fox. The character’s language, in its aphoristic repetitions, bore traces, however, of another Baltimorean, Gertrude Stein.

From the moment Mother commanded Grandma to “sit down there nicely and be out of the way!” (something, given the current situation, I might have commanded of myself), the women of my play took control of my head and hand, leading me through a series of incidents over which I seemed to have little control. Whenever I even attempted to think out some element of plot, the voices forced me in other directions, so that page after page of the original manuscript was torn up, lines crossed out.

“What are you doing?” asked Jerry, observing me writing in a seemingly uncomfortable position at the dining room windowsill.

“Writing,” was all I could mutter, as words tumbled through my fingers to the little notebook before me. It seemed I could not write fast enough, and by the time we had returned to Los Angeles a couple of days later, I had completed a rough draft. Never had I produced a work so painlessly. The only things that needed alteration, so it appeared, were instances where I had gotten ahead of my characters’ words and acts.

As I do with all my plays—or, at least, as Kier does—I sent a typed copy to playwright friend Mac Wellman, who read it with great enthusiasm, ultimately suggesting its inclusion in the 1994 T.W.E.E.D New York Festival.

Mac also arranged, at an earlier date, a reading at Richard Caliban’s Cucaracha Theater in New York, a production overseen by Richard’s wife, Mollie O’Mara, who later directed the Festival production. The wonderful actress/teacher Nora Dunfee performed in that original reading (there may have been others of the later cast in the first reading, but I have no memory of who else performed). I do know that playwrights Wellman, Len Jenkin, and Matthew Maguire, along with my editor, actress Diana Daves (upon whom I had based, in part, the character of Mother) were in attendance. The reading went splendidly, creating a much more absurdly comic effect than the later Festival production.

I had titled the play The Confirmation because the work concerned a group of figures who were all attempting to confirm their various visions of reality—visions each at odds with one another. The outsider to this dysfunctional family, Carmelita, was also attempting to confirm her position as a member of the family (yes, Carson McCullers had come to mind in the writing) and to confirm a reality different from what family members were willing to admit. During the final revision, moreover, I was watching on television the horrific circus of the confirmation hearings in October 1991 of Judge Clarence Thomas, accused by his former co-worker Anita Hill of inappropriate sexual conversations covering everything from gang rape, the size of porn star Long Dong Silver’s penis, to sexual intercourse with animals! Who could have made up such a bizarre scenario? To me, Hill’s painful testimony could be nothing but the truth, and to this day I am convinced of the incompetence of the conservative Justice of the Supreme Court.

Accordingly, I began my play with a quote, representing the two opposing visions of truth represented by those hearings: Anita Hill’s statement “I felt that I had to tell the truth,” as against Thomas’s summary of events, “I have never, in all my life, felt such hurt, such pain, such agony.” To me it seemed to sum up the idea of truth and consequence. My Sun & Moon Press published the play in 1993.

When I came to New York in early April 1994 to observe rehearsals for the Festival production, I discovered that O’Mara had read the work somewhat differently from what I had, particularly in connection with anti-war statements. It wasn’t that she was incorrect in her interpretations—indeed much was said in this family about military service, whose men, in war after war, had died—but the fact that she and costume designer Carol Brys had decided to literalize those issues, dressing Carmelita, the lesbian nun living in a relationship with Sister, in a military-like costume, came as a surprise. The other major change in the play was Mollie’s decision to cast the estranged sister, Blanche, whom the family believes speaks only Norwegian, but, in fact, speaks only Yiddish, with the wonderful actor Kirk Jackson, dressing in drag and speaking English in a heavy Yiddish accent. When she was at her best, Nora Dunfee, a beloved acting teacher (and the elderly Southern woman on the park bench in the film, Forrest Gump), was a perfect Grandma, but throughout rehearsals she was having difficulty memorizing her lines, and the day before the premiere we were forced to embed the script in a magazine, laying open upon the table in front of the backyard “couch.”

None of these “changes” really upset me, since I have always felt that one of the wonders of theater is the possibility of various interpretations of a work which directors and actors can provide. With that in mind, I write only minimal stage directions, and prefer to leave the set—in this case highly stylized, with large cardboard tubes suggesting the trees of the backyard—an abstraction. What I wasn’t prepared for was the utter stubbornness of some actors. The woman playing Carmelita, in particular, was constantly asking me about her motivations. Since I have never written from of a psychologically-based perspective, I simply could not answer her. “Clearly she just wants to be part of the family, wants to be part of something!” I declared. But again and again, Cate Woodruff was pulling the work into a kind of bog of conditions, reasons, explanations, and the more O’Mara and I tried to float the play as the slightly nostalgic comedic work I had imagined it, she flatly pulled it down into a thwarted drama of small-town lives.

Fortunately, lighting director Richard Schaefer and the composer Tom Burnett had captured the spirit of the work, and, along with Jackson’s slightly campy portrayal of Blanche, which completely pulled the play away from any sense of realism, often succeeded in restoring the work’s sense of bemused acceptance of the darker horrors of family life.

Howard attended the two performances on April 6 and 7 at the famed Vineyard Theatre, along with, once again, many of my playwright friends, Charles Bernstein and Susan Bee, Hannah Weiner, and other poets and artists. Howard, however, did not feel the play succeeded, suggesting that I was straddling absurdity and realism, maintaining that what I had really attempted to do was to write a fully developed realist play—something that couldn’t be further from my mind. Besides, I had no control over the situation, I tried to explain; the characters wrote the play, not I.


A few weeks after this production, Nora Dunfee fell to a New York street, dead from brain cancer. Clearly her lack of memory throughout the production had been a product of her illness!

Some years later, a Los Angeles theater company decided to produce The Confirmation for one night. I suggested I might attend the rehearsals, but they seemed to question the need for that. Nonetheless, I did drop by, where I was obviously seen as an intruder even more dangerous than Carmelita. After the rehearsal, the director introduced me to the cast as the publisher of the play, and suddenly I realized why I had gotten such a cold shoulder. “And I might add, I am also the playwright himself; I write under the pseudonym of Kier Peters.” Suddenly several cast members came forward filled with questions.

That production was what I can only describe as a disaster. The company had been famous for, at one time, producing plays by Ionesco—which explained, perhaps, the continual manipulation throughout the play of various pieces of furniture, particularly the movement of chairs! Of close friends, I think only Martin Nakell attended—thank heaven! And today, so he tells me, he has forgotten the event.

Los Angeles, May 3, 2008

To order The Confirmation send an e-mail to: douglasmesserli@gmail.com

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