Monday, September 20, 2010

Douglas Messerli "What Have We Reaped?" (on John O'Keefe's The Reapers)

By Douglas Messerli

John O’Keefe Reapers, Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, Los Angeles, opened July 16, 2005

In the program notes for his new play, Reapers, playwright and director John O’Keefe describes the work as a “memory of a fantasy,” “What in Greece was the island, in Iowa is the farm. The farmer is the king, his wife, the queen, his daughter, the princess, and his son, the prince. Joey Beam is the chorus. The storm has already happened. The play is being performed by ghosts.”

Indeed, life down on the farm as presented by O’Keefe has as much in common with the Furies as it does with any Norman Rockwell portrait of a country family at table. For the Fox family, working a hardscrabble plot with nothing to farm but hay, everything has gone rotten before the play begins. Hulda, the grandmother, is catatonic, a wheelchair bound manikin her son describes as having been stuffed, but who from time to time awakens to terrorize all. Mildred Fox, the matriarch of this Orestesian brood, is a brutalized housewife longing to kill either her husband or her son, it doesn’t seem to matter which. Her daughter Deirdre is a sometimes innocent but more often flirtatious young woman on the prowl. Son Bruce, whose major activities include raping the sleeping daughters of nearby families, nightly dueling with his father, and ultimately killing his best friend, characterizes his behavior as one of “startlement,” an activity which consists mainly of popping out from beneath the bed of a young man, Tom O’Brien, whom the family has obtained from the state juvenile home to help with the three-day endurance test described as reaping. Locked in the basement between long stretches of hard work, Tom is subjected to homoerotic “startlements” by Bruce as well as the love-starved blandishments of Deirdre. The father is the kind of farmer my own Iowa grandfathers were, men who did little but work themselves into death.

As we observe this loving quintet at their evening chowdown (“dinner” is too polite a word), we witness their simple home-bound pleasures: washing their hands, chewing slices of white bread, and verbally abusing one other. Other than the nightly father-son fights in the barn, temporary escapes—the son’s “running” with his friend Dickie, the daughter’s quick forays into the local town for fresh admirers, the father’s insistent consumption of alcohol, and the mother’s brooding day and night-time visions—are the only possible “pleasures” available to them.

But there is no escape, obviously, for young Tom. He is their temporary prisoner, and as an outside agent caught in this spinning web of horror, is called upon to witness their unspeakable deeds and unwillingly participate in their disgusting visions and acts. At moments, O’Keefe brilliantly crystallizes the absurd but utterly logical political conclusions of right-wing America: it’s time to stop allowing foreigners to come here and take over our jobs, and to start sending Americans overseas to destroy the foreigners’ homes and cities and take over their jobs, their oil wells, their manufacturing plants.

The satire of this play, however, is at other times too broad. Religious fervor, racial prejudice, violent political values —the author has perhaps created too many vectors for this wacky, ultra-dysfunctional family to successfully embrace; and the final furor of nature, madness, and personal hate take the play to a mountaintop of hysteria that the wide-eyed audience can merely endure —all belief in and sympathy for its characters having long been erased.

The “hero” of this fantasy is nature itself, the forces that every farmer knows are at the center of his existence. Like O’Keefe, I grew up in Iowa. Even living in a city, as I did, the constant subject of daily life was the weather—there was never enough rain and there was always too much; it was always too hot, too cold. Every farm family had tales of relatives being killed by or surviving tornadoes.

The single-man chorus of this play, Joey Beam, poetically conjures up a world of just such forces —clouds that shout, winds that whisper, earth that cries out from its daily abuse. And at the center of the horrible fury of this play are characters desperate themselves to sing out for the joy of living and the praise of nature’s gifts. Deirdre and Tom both sing lovingly at moments in the play, and in one short scene, hidden away in her upstairs bedroom, the two remind one almost of another young couple, George Gibbs and Emily Webb of Our Town, discussing their lives and futures. We quickly realize, however, that, unlike the world facing the Thornton Wilder figures, the couple of this current-day fantasy have no real lives, no real future to embrace. Tom attempts to describe his family as a “broken” one, with a dead father and a mother who “forgets” him for long stretches in state orphanages and juvenile centers. Deirdre decries his metaphors as mere euphemisms. What is “broken” about a relationship where a mother refuses to retrieve him? The “relationship” is one of hostility, not a “break,” which might suggest a possible mending. For, as she knows from her own insufferable life, there is no longer any hope for love. It may be that, given the “relationships” these would-be dreamers have had to endure, there is no longer even a possibility of hope. As the author describes the changing forces of nature in our real global-warmed world: “Diseases spread, spring arrives earlier, plant and animal range shift, the coral reefs bleach. There are downpours, heavy snowfalls, flooding, droughts and fires.” Let us hope, O’Keefe seems to argue, that we awaken before the Apocalypse arrives.

Los Angeles, August 1, 2005
Reprinted from My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006)
(c) 2006 by Douglas Messerli


John O’Keefe is an internationally acclaimed playwright, director, and solo performer. His solo piece Shimmer won the Bessie Award and was made into a motion picture by American Playhouse. His most recent work includes his Occupation Trilogy: Glamour (winner of a National Critic’s Citation), Spook, and Times Like These (winner of the LA Drama Critics Circle and LA Weekly Awards for Best Play). O‚Keefe was the recipient of the 2005 NEA/TCG Residency grant with the Odyssey Theater in Los Angeles that produced his play, Reapers. In 2006 he wrote the libretto for Chrysalis, a new opera written with Clark Suprynowicz for the Berkeley Opera. His early play, The Deatherians, was published by Green Integer, and is available for purchase.

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