The following was published on my original site on November 15, 2011.
Last night was the reading of Sheila O’Malley’s play, The Hill You Die On.
No traces of the play that had closed the night before were apparent in the small theater space where the reading was held. All that remained was bare, black, blank.
Two chairs and two stands on a platform. Another chair and stand off to the side.
The audience entered, greeted, rustled, embraced, connected, acknowledged, made room for, settled.
And then a relationship unfolded.
And I was reminded all over again that what happens to each of us is both unique and universal. The story is ours alone, but it has all been told before, hasn’t it? The coming together. And apart. The tenderness and sorrow. The beginning and the inevitable conclusion.
If you have heeded my recommendations over the years, if you have bookmarked The Sheila Variations or added the site to your feed or done whatever you need to do to ensure that you’re keeping up with her, you already know that she can, vernacularly speaking, write her ass off. The Hill You Die On is simply further evidence of her gifts.
Humor punctuates the first half of the play; Sheila’s dialogue reminds us that laughter comes easily early in a relationship. Wit has a different sound when it ends, though, doesn’t it, and she captures that, too. Most importantly, she captures the truth of it all – the honesty that is both tender and devastating.
A quiet moment all but undid me: Jack explains to Neve why he reads obituaries. Over the past year, I’ve perfected the art of the silent sob, so I don’t think I distracted anyone with my reaction to that beautifully written, perfectly delivered scene.
And the conclusion… well, I don’t think I was alone in my response to that.
Jeff Christian portrayed Jack. As I have mentioned, Jeff was the artistic director for the Shakespeare Project of Chicago (SPC), which played an important role in fostering my son’s (and my own, for that matter) love of Shakespeare. I had a moment after the play to tell Jeff how much I appreciated not only his wonderful performance but also his work with the Project. Damned if he didn’t ask me which plays we had seen. The Winter’s Tale, which we saw in February 2005, immediately came to mind, as did The Merchant of Venice from the 2003-2004 season, but for the life of me I could not remember Two Gentlemen of Verona, from that same season. “Uhhh….” It came to me as we were driving home. Of course. Well, we introverts don’t score high on small talk, do we? (More, let’s face it: Two Gentleman of Verona is not exactly one of Shakespeare’s great ones.) Still, once I learned that he was going to play Jack, I determined that he must know how important his work with SPC had been to us – and that meant talking to him. So I tried.
And Amy Carle portrayed, no, became Neve. Had I simply read the character, I would have loved her, but Amy Carle’s performance ensured that Neve will roam the rooms of my imagination for a long time. Beautifully, beautifully done.
The reading was followed by a discussion with Sheila and the director, Mitchell Fain (who also deserves a shout-out, as does the person who read the stage directions, which required impeccable timing – and he had it; regrettably, I don’t have his name). If all that I’ve already written hasn’t persuaded you that the play was absolutely terrific, then this confession may: Following many articulate audience responses to everything from scene changes to cultural references to character, I spoke. Pretty animatedly, in fact. Ayup. Deeply moved and likely inspired by the play’s frank language, I attempted to describe what, to me, was Jack’s emotionally brutish behavior during the “scorched earth” argument and in the penultimate scene.
And I did so in the most unflattering terms.
A slang word was involved.
It will haunt me for weeks. [Note: Five and half years later, it haunts me.]
Couple that episode with my sincere but inept conversation with Jeff, and, well, there you go. The introvert’s worst nightmare.
Don’t worry, though. I’ll get over it.
Heh, heh, heh.
Sheila, thank you. Your characters, their relationship, your way with words, the wisdom and humor you revealed, the truths you told — all of it moved me, made me think, made me feel, made me hope to understand. Thank you. And congratulations!