One of the golden rules of playwriting, I’m told, is: “Show, don’t tell.” It’s a rule that reminds budding playwrights (and veterans, too, I suppose) of the salient difference between writing for the theatre and other forms of literary writing. The playwright doesn’t need to tell, to describe, as the novelist does, because the playwright has all of the other dimensions of the theatre — the actors, the scene design, the lights, music and other sound effects, the costumes, the movement, etc — to help flesh out the telling. I also take this rule as an admonishment to the playwright to keep in mind what audience members desire when they go to the theatre — they don’t wish to be told what they are seeing (or what they are supposed to be seeing), they want to see it happen, live, in front of them — the real-time unfolding of action is one of the unique pleasures of theatre.
But as Chris Rawson told my class the other day (and here I want to interrupt this post with a public thank you to Chris for generously sharing his time and his expertise on reviewing with my dramaturgy students last week!): “No rule is sacred.” There’s a long tradition of writers for the theatre sprinkling in more or less liberal doses of telling along with their showing (think Greek choruses, Shakespeare’s prologue to Romeo and Juliet, the Stage Manager in Our Town, etc.). Moreover, both solo performance art and avant-garde/experimental theatre pieces often rely heavily on narration to call attention to theatrical conventions and disrupt audience expectations. Brecht, of course, used “telling” — in the form of projections or signs that explained what was about to happen in the upcoming scene — as a means of removing the element of suspense from the drama so that audience members would be less mesmerized by the action and more ready to receive the story with a critical frame of mind.
Much less common, however — or, better said, less commonly accepted as “good” playwriting — are plays that rely solely on first- or third-person narration to drive the dramatic action and tell the theatrical story. Two productions in the last couple of months here in Pittsburgh fall into that category: Thurgood, by George Stevens, Jr., which recently closed at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, and Little Gem, by Elaine Murphy, which just opened at City Theatre. Thurgood (featuring a solo performance by Montae Russell) was framed as a lecture delivered to an audience at Howard University by the elderly Thurgood Marshall, in which he told the story of his ascent to a seat on the Supreme Court, with a few dashes of personal history thrown in. The play had all of the pleasures and appeal of such a biographical lecture, and although the Public put its customary deep-pocket resources behind the effort (including a grand set with a lovely door that, puzzlingly, never got used, and a boffo media design by Larry Shea), there wasn’t really enough “show” to overcome the impression that the play is, in effect, just one long “tell.”
Little Gem is somewhat more successful in making its narration dramatic. The play is a series of monologues told alternately by three generations of women in a Dublin family: grandmother Kay (Cary Anne Spear), mother Lorraine (Robin Walsh), and teenaged daughter Amber (Hayley Nielsen). The play traces a several months period during which Amber discovers she is pregnant and has a baby, Lorraine gets into a healthy relationship with a man after having been alone for over a decade, and Kay’s ailing husband dies. There is almost no dialogue in the play, and what little interaction occurs between the characters happens as a result of staging and often in silence. The narration is in the present tense — i.e., “Go to the corner store, pick up some stockings” — which usefully lends a sense of urgency and immediacy to the text, and the interwoven monologues achieve the intended effect of allowing us to see how differently each of these women is experiencing life in the same time and place. The result is like looking through a kaleidoscope; our understanding of what is happening shifts as each character takes a turn describing it from their point of view.
The performances here are good, although all three actors find the maintenance of the Irish brogue a challenge (it seems to wax and wane through the play). Given that a good deal of the humor & meaning of the text depends on the “Irishness” of its delivery, this is problematic in places. Nielsen’s Amber seems stuck in one dimension (a dimension I’d identify as “sullen pissed-off teen”) for most of the first act, and only begins to let us see more nuance after the baby is born — a choice a less generous critic might identify as clichéd. In the early scenes of the play Spear shows a deft comic touch in portraying an older woman’s frankness about her sexual needs, and towards the end she offers the most moving moment in the play, when she suddenly realizes she’ll not be telling her dead husband what has happened at his funeral (Reader, I confess: I wept). Walsh is convincing as the anxiously lonely and insecure mother, although her difficulties with the Irish accent are most pronounced.
Murphy is a gifted comic writer, and at the play’s best moments we feel as if we are being taken into each woman’s confidence, like a best friend or therapist, as she humorously and sometimes self-critically lets us in on her thoughts and actions. That feeling is effectively underscored by both the intimacy of the space (it’s staged in City’s Lester Hamburg Studio) and by director Kimberly Senior’s choice to have the actors maintain sustained eye contact with the audience. But so much of the play is for the ear that I couldn’t help thinking it would be as, if not more, effective as a radio play. The actors do very little on stage, and what they do do, they often tell us they are doing before, while, or after they do it (sometimes, to be fair, this adds comic effect; but at other times it just seems redundant or tiresome). At one point late in the second act, Amber hugs her mother, and I realized with some surprise that this was one of the only moments (and perhaps the first moment) in the play that any of the actors had touched one of the others, that one character, in effect, had intruded into the narrative space of another. On the one hand, this moment highlighted an important effect of the “telling” strategy: it allows us to see how insulated each character is in her own bubble of concern. But on the other, it drew our attention to that strategy’s great deficit, for it was one of the first moments that the stage became alive with what it does best, that is: show us how complicated, messy, contradictory, conflicted, and strange human lives can be, and how much of life is, in fact, made up of our interactions, in real time, with each other.