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Law of Desire

Date: May 12, 2009


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They say timing is everything in show business, and Epic Theatre Ensemble’s A More Perfect Union, which opens this week, definitely has timing on its side. Vern Thiessen’s new play follows the complicated politics of the United States Supreme Court, a subject that’s freshly in the news with the announced retirement of Justice David Souter, through the lens of a pair of young Supreme Court clerks who become romantically and ethically entangled.

Explains Thiessen, a native Canadian now based in New York, “It was a conversation that began after Epic did my play Einstein’s Gift in 2005—they talked about a commission.” Thiessen, whose plays also include Apple, Shakespeare’s Will and Vimy, wasn’t given a specific topic, but he was offered a theme, or rather a provocative cluster of themes: “The company was interested in me writing a play about passion, power and politics—what happens when those three collide.” This was a good match, Thiessen says, because he “wanted to write a play about some part of the American political system; being born and bred in Canada, it’s still a bit of a mystery to me.”

He drew inspiration from a Vanity Fair article from 2004, in which Super Court clerks dished about the infamous Bush v. Gore decision that decided the 2000 election. From there Thiessen went on to other sources, including some books by former Supreme Court clerks, Sorcerers Apprentices and The Elect, as well as the gossipy court-watching blog UnderneathTheirRobes. He also had his own “Deep Throat”—a former Supreme clerk who “agreed to chat with me about some of the day-to-day things that happen there—just the little inside details you can’t get unless you’re there. It was, and still remains, quite secretive.”

As a result, Thiessen says with a laugh, “I now know the American constitution way better than I know the Canadian constitution.”

Of course, his play isn’t intended a legal brief but a comedy/drama about two clerks, a Jewish woman named Maddie and a black man named James, who spar over their political differences but bond over their work and a crucial case. “I wanted to write a romantic comedy,” Theissen says. “It’s about the Supreme Court, but also it’s about what happens when you fall in love with someone you’re not supposed to fall in love with.”

Still, the fictional Maddie and James are Thiessen’s stand-ins for the 30-or-so real-life Supreme Court clerks chosen each year from among some 80,000 applications. Most of those young worker bees, he says, only serve for a year, but this is no innocuous entry-level job: In that year these young upstarts happen to serve some of the most powerful men and women in the world.

“The question is, How much influence do they have over their justices?” Thiessen says. “I mean, some of them are writing first drafts of opinions that are going to influence the future of the nation, and they’re 26 years old. Is that a good or a bad thing? At what point in time do their personal and political beliefs come into play? I would imagine every single day.”

So how does this Canadian view his adopted country? Says Thiessen frankly, “I’ve lived here for two years, and I feel like I’ve lived in two different countries, one up to November of last year and a different one since then.” He likes the new one, almost needless to say, but it’s not just the election that has deepened his appreciation of the United States—it’s also his exposure to one of its most extraordinary branches of government.

“The Supreme Court is a pretty amazing institution,” Thiessen says. “They read anything that comes in the door; you could write a handwritten letter saying, ‘I am innocent, hear my case,’ and they will read it. It is reassuring, and then of course there are always problems—sometimes you look at some of the justices and you think, How were they ever picked to be on the court?”

Most extraordinary of all, Thiessen says, is the reverence accorded the court—justly, he feels.

“There are no cameras in there, and I think that’s wise—it does feel like a church in there,” Thiessen says. “You see some pretty high-powered people in there, and there is still a sense of awe in that room, the feeling this is the last bastion of hope in this country. I think that sense still survives in that courtroom, no matter what you think of some of those justices. I’ve gained a huge respect for the political system in this country.”

But Thiessen’s biggest challenge—and opportunity—was not so much in mastering his research and turning it to dramatic advantage but in writing the play for two specific actors: Epic members Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. and Melissa Friedman.

“Writing for Godfrey Simmons, an African-American, I had to just say, ‘I’m going to write a character that’s totally different from mine,’ and just take the leap,” says Thiessen. “That was a great experience to sit with Godfrey and talk about what the African-American experience is in this country.

“I set myself a lot of ridiculous challenges witht his play,” Thiessen concludes, “and I hope it’s produced a funny, thought-provoking, entertaining and romantic 75 minutes. I want audiences to laugh, to shed a tear and to give a damn what happens.”

Click here for more information about A More Perfect Union.