By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If you accept the prevailing wisdom about new play development in this country, then the silent scenes in Bethany are tiny miracles.
Written by Laura Marks---and currently premiering at City Center in a production from Women's Project Theater---the show follows a car saleswoman named Crystal (America Ferrera) who suddenly loses her home and her daughter. Social services won't return her child until she has a home, so she pretends to live in an abandoned house. But one day, she finds Gary (Tobias Segal) in the kitchen. Is he dangerous? Sympathetic? Can she maintain her illusion of success when he's around?
These questions get answered in tense, wordless scenes that rock our understanding of what's happening. Moments like these make sense in a full production, when actors are moving around in space, making the most of glances, pauses, and props. However, they're harder to comprehend in a staged reading, when actors sit around music stands. In that context, a show's non-verbal elements can feel less immediate than the dialogue.
That can be dangerous for playwrights. If you hear your show read too many times, then you can reimagine it as a "music stand experience." When you rewrite, you might unintentionally cut the "silent elements" that don't seem important at a reading.
And Bethany has had almost fifteen readings at theatres around the country. Along the way, Marks has developed a special kind of diligence.
"The music stands restrict so much," she says. "I think part of what made that process work for me was that I didn't make a whole lot of changes in those readings. If I'd rewritten the play around every different cast at the music stands, I would have lost sight of whatever the original impulse was. I've experienced the danger of doing too many rewrites at that stage, when you don't even know what you have."
To be fair, Marks adds that the reading process introduced her to dozens of great artists and taught her things about Crystal's character, the clarity of her storytelling, and the political ideas in the script. (Marks started the play during the 2009 housing crisis, shortly after she and her husband Ken Marks, who co-stars in <i>Bethany</i> as a shady motivational speaker, both lost their jobs.)
Still, some of her biggest rewrites have come in the last few weeks, as the show finds its feet at City Center.
Marks and her director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, are especially focused on maintaining suspense. Those silent scenes don't matter if we guess what's coming. "One big thing was approaching the design so that we didn't play the end at the beginning---to have that white space feel cheery and have the sound feel cheery," Upchurch says. "Every moment Crystal is hopeful, we can be hopeful, too."
It's also crucial to balance the power in every scene, like when Crystal first finds Gary in the house. "There were times when Gary seemed too menacing," Upchurch says. "We had to say, 'Who's the person she could decide to sleep in the same house with---total stranger---and you don't think, 'What an idiot!' If he's too scary, you think, 'Run!'"
Marks adds, "But if he's too harmless, then it drains the tension out of the scene. You want it balanced on the knife edge."
And that tension is about more than titillating the audience. It also embodies the play's message about the moral ambiguity of survival. "I want to make sure that people don't walk away saying, 'Well, it's her own fault,'" says Upchurch. "This is the woman who has done everything right, but she's also ended up homeless. There's something important to look at there."
That's why the production has to keep us guessing about Crystal's choices and caring about what happens to her. Upchurch says, "You want the audience to be thinking, 'What would I do? Would I stay in this house? I see how she got into this moral dilemma.' Then, maybe, you can change the way people think about things."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Pictured L to R: Laura Marks, America Ferrera, and Gaye Taylor Upchurch