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A New Recipe for “Trifles”

Date: Jan 29, 2010


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Brooke O’Harra isn’t interested in the Trifles that most people think they see.

Written in 1916, Susan Glaspell’s short one-act play follows two women who solve the mystery of their neighbor’s murder. While their husbands search his bedroom for clues, the ladies wait downstairs, and they notice small details---a poorly-stitched quilt, a broken birdcage---that prove his wife was the killer. More than that, they realize why she did it and decide to hide the evidence. The men don’t notice; they just tease their wives for fussing over silly things.

Small wonder that many people see Trifles as a feminist play about men taking women for granted. But for O’Harra, there’s more to the story. She’s directing the show for her company Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf, and she’s avoiding a battle of the sexes. “That’s definitely in the script, but I’m not interested in telling that story,” she says. “I’m constantly reminding my actors that they love their husbands. They’re not miserable men-haters”

With audacious theatrical techniques, O’Harra is enlarging her production, now playing at the Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, to explore questions of community and isolation. “It’s about the way we connect and don’t connect with people, and how connecting with people can be excruciating,” she says.

For instance, even though the female characters help conceal another woman’s crime, Trifles isn’t girl-power theatre. O’Harra notes that when one woman reveals something personal---that she lost a baby ---the other quickly changes the subject. When the women discuss how unhappy their murderous neighbor must have been, they get flustered and uncomfortable. “I’m looking at this idea of sisterhood being painful, of empathy being as much of a burden as a connection,” O’Harra says. “When these women empathize, it’s painful for them.”

To create a world where almost everything is difficult to say, O’Harra’s focusing on punctuation. She says, “Susan Glaspell writes these dashes into the script all over the place, in almost every line, and I started thinking, ‘What if that pause is a full stop? What if it’s a pause to rethink something or to think better of something?”

In other words, both male and female characters (but especially the women) will be on the verge of saying something, and then they’ll take a deliberate pause: No “ums” and no stuttering, just silence. “It forces you to wait,” O’Harra says. “As an audience, you’re waiting. As an actor, it’s like taking the time to rethink a choice. You’re thinking, ‘Should I say this thing?’”

But how will that waiting affect the audience? Discussing the crowd at a workshop of the production, O’Harra says, “Some feedback is that it made people crazy, that it made people feel really stressed out, but the other, more positive feedback was that the pauses made people feel really present. They’re thinking, ‘What’s happening? What’s going on here?’ It forces people to hold their breath. If what we’re doing works, you’re more engaged because you’re imagining what they’re really thinking.”

The show is not all silence, however. Occasionally, characters break from the play and sing, chant-like songs, accompanied by onstage musicians.

These songs could represent many things: Maybe they embody the communal spirit the characters feel but don’t know how to express. Maybe they reflect a bond the characters could feel if they could just talk to each other.

Or maybe the songs are a message to the audience. O’Harra says, “The women seem cold and quiet and removed, and they’re resisting each other in all these ways, and then they turn out and look at the audience, and they’re big and full and alive. [It’s an] invitation in.”

Ideally, then, the mixture of silence and songs will give us a richer understanding of the world onstage---a world where knowing your neighbor is so much harder than it seems.

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor

(Photo by Prudence Katze)