INDIALOGUE

Fractured Language: Ann Marie Healy

BOOTS: Now that is something. Some thing.

NANETTE: ...

BOOTS: I tell you. I just saw something....

NANETTE: ...

BOOTS: Rosemary is in the garage right next to the pop.

NANETTE: ...

BOOTS: But the funny thing is. The funny thing is... She’s not alive.

NANETTE: ...

BOOTS: Looks to me like she’s dead.

NANETTE:...

BOOTS: I would definitely say that she is dead. Her... body is lying on top of the pop.

NANETTE: ... I... know...

BOOTS: ... You... know...

NANETTE: I went out for a... pop... before... the storm...

(Pause)

BOOTS: She must have... done it to herself... Looks that way to me...She always did say she wasn’t much for the living...Seems like she could have tried a little harder though... At the living (!)... Don’t you think?... I know I do. I sure do think that.

(Pause. The sound of the storm.)

God is with her... God is with us too.

(Pause)

Yep. God will bring us all... Together... In the end...

NANETTE: Or maybe... Yep... Or maybe... Not...

(Pause)

—From Now That’s What I Call A Storm,

by Ann Marie Healy

Ann Marie Healy’s plays disclose a world of absence and avoidance; characters routinely speak to obfuscate rather than reveal. Plots seem structured around a void—sometimes that void is an event so traumatic that it can’t be discussed; other times, it’s a structural, dramaturgical void, as when details of relationship and environment are withheld from the audience and, it seems at times, the characters themselves.

In her play Now That’s What I Call A Storm, recently produced by the Edge Theater Company, two Minnesota families dance around the issues that threaten to destroy them—we hear fragmented information about long-ago affairs that aren’t quite forgotten, see grave but unspoken-of shifts in power, and, most importantly, watch one couple, Boots and Nanette, unravel after their daughter commits suicide.

In When He Gets That Way and You’re No One’s Nothing Special, characters seem to occupy a world between ours and another, one whose rules we are not privy to; they might be playing a game, but then again they might not. Mistakes seem to be made deliberately; clichés are spouted with alternate meanings and in absolute sincerity; double-entendres are naively and innocently dropped. Relationships remain mysterious, as characters take on qualities that are simultaneously innocent and eerie.

“The words seal off in a play, so there’s only a certain amount of language allowed in,” the playwright told me in a recent interview. “Language is separated from meaning. If it went far enough, it would devolve into nonsense, but I don’t want to take it that far.”

Indeed, whether the Minnesota dialect of Storm or the weird fake-Victorianism of When He Gets That Way, the language seems to live in a space somewhere in between naturalism and absurdist parody. While never quite reaching the total unraveling one might see in a play by Ionesco or Wellman, the language nonetheless pushes you away, hard; these are characters with something to hide, people whom one suspects would implode if confronted with themselves.

“Sometimes I try to choose ‘tin ear’ plot conventions so I can spin language around them. I’m interested in combining a selective vocabulary list, a set of repeated words and phrases, with plot elements like suspense, creating a kind of dramatic tension. It’s a struggle to weave all of those elements together.”

ANNABELLE: The Box Street Boxes are nothing but yesterday’s news. Why in the world would Mistress Vanna take Mister Box?

CHRISTIANE: She said he had the spark of life Miss.

(Pause)

ANNABELLE: She said he had the spark of life. She’s smitten if she thinks Mister Box has the spark of life.

CHRISTIANE: Yes Miss. The spark of life. She said he had the spark of life Miss.

ANNABELLE: Does Mister Box think that Mistress Vanna has the spark of life?

CHRISTIANE: I imagine so Miss.

ANNABELLE: Why? Why do you imagine so?

CHRISTIANE: I saw a note he wrote to Mistress Vanna. It said: “I am taken with you. Most especially your dark, darting eyes.”

(Pause)

ANNABELLE: Do you think that I have the spark of life?

CHRISTIANE: I don’t know you Miss.

ANNABELLE: But just in looking at me and engaging with me for this short period of time, do you think that I have the spark of life?

CHRISTIANE: Miss. I don’t think you have the spark of life.

ANNABELLE: …Well. Aren’t you fresh and honest like hay.

—From When He Gets That Way,

by Ann Marie Healy

“When I worked on Now That’s What I Call A Storm,” Ann Marie told me, “the question became about how much I should use the language to bring us on an emotional journey, versus whether to use it in a more formal way. In terms of emotion, what ended up happening was a request of reasonable empathy from the audience. Then I thought, what would happen if I tipped the balance the other way? Would it be interesting chopping off the notion of an ‘inciting event,’ and just showing people in crisis? Can you create suspense that way?”

One result of this exploration was the musical When He Gets That Way, a collaboration between Ann Marie, director Laramie Dennis, and composer Shane Rettig. In this play, two young women, Annabelle and Christiane, sit in a drawing room. Annabelle (described as a “lady”) occupies “some kind of eclectic room of eccentricity.” Christiane is the servant girl filling in for “Old Lady Bottom,” Annabelle’s usual servant who has fallen ill. The two young women engage in subtle power games that just barely evade comprehension, creating an atmosphere of both comedy and menace. The games range from gleeful clichés, as when Annabelle plagiarizes Christiane’s hackneyed diary entries, to the chilling songs that come toward the climax of the piece and result in an unexplained but frightening reversal.

The effect is somewhere between a parody of romance novels and a teenager trying to recite Jane Austen from memory: Annabelle and Christiane revel in the joy of fractured language. There is a feeling that they’re trying to create the world as they go along. Or perhaps they’re trapped in a Kafkaesque nightmare version of a child’s game and are trying to make the best of it. It’s impossible to tell. This is part of the joy of hearing Ann Marie’s plays—they can demand that you agree to enter a world that not only has its own specific logic but which sometimes refuses to tell you what that logic is. “It’s almost as if no language exists that has not already been said in this world, and the context is creating the meaning for the language. There may not even be meanings for some of the phrases they use in this world, or they may be like goofy mixed metaphors, broken apart and put back together, things that mean one thing to us and another to the characters.”

ANNABELLE: You are blessed with mediocrity sweet Christiane.

CHRISTIANE: I suppose I am. I suppose I am blessed with mediocrity. My mother told me we were bound to live lives of quiet desperation but I don’t believe she was right. My desperation will not be quiet.

ANNABELLE: Oh yes it will. You will live a beautifully quiet life.

CHRISTIANE: Maybe then Miss. A beautiful life with such turmoil. Someday I, too, will contract a fever and die in a wet white gown!

ANNABELLE: How wonderful! What wonderful suffering…Not at all like the sweet dreams my life…I am at the eye of the storm…Haven’t you noticed that about me?

CHRISTIANE: Yes Miss Annabelle. I am at the eye of the needle. You are at the eye of the storm.

ANNABELLE: And to suffer in such a mediocre way…Is must be so wonderful to wake up in the morning and think “I am not special today. No no not today.”

CHRISTIANE: Yes Miss Annabelle. To think, “My wet white gown is brave and fierce and bright.”

(Pause)

ANNABELLE: The time has come to reveal something more intimate, Christiane. This will shock you but I was very mediocre once.

—From When He Gets That Way

I asked Ann Marie about her collaboration with Shane, and why, in particular, she chose to make this play a musical: “I was interested in how language changes when it’s sung. It’s fun to hear people sing. It’s always available, why not use it? A tinny phrase, or something simple, even guttural noises, when they become sung, it’s really satisfying.”

ANNABELLE:

(Singing)

These papers have no heart.

CHRISTIANE:

(Singing)

Have no heart?

ANNABELLE:

Because they’re only trees.

CHRISTIANE:

Only trees?

ANNABELLE:

But you my bunny Christiane

You will never be a tree.

CHRISTIANE:

I’ll never be a tree.

ANNABELLE:

Those forests have no laughs

CHRISTIANE:

Ha ha ha!

ANNABELLE:

Those timbers have no friends.

CHRISTIANE: (To herself)

...Not like me...

ANNABELLE:

But you my bunny Christiane

You will never be a tree.

CHRISTIANE:

I’ll never be a tree.

ANNABELLE:

You make like a tree and leave

But let me interfere

Just be glad you don’t have roots

When that lumberjack appears

(He’s gunna chop off your brassiere!)

ANNABELLE:

This lumber has no life.

CHRISTIANE:

Has no life?

ANNABELLE:

These termites have no meal.

CHRISTIANE:

Not even a snack.

ANNABELLE:

But you my bunny Christiane

Your flesh and blood can feel

CHRISTIANE:

(A revelation to herself) My flesh and blood can feel!

(Christiane wanders off to sing to herself alone)

Most people don’t

Hate a tree

Some people have

Come to hate me

—From When He Gets That Way

Like the reality of the play itself, the music avoids reflecting a single style; while some songs reflect the music-box quality of the girls’ game, others are jarringly decontextualized; at one point, Christiane picks up a hairbrush and belts out a punk song that could have been written by Bikini Kill. “Shane and Laramie and I wanted to avoid any one style,” Ann Marie told me. “It felt really raw, the fun of the first instinct. We’re trying to preserve that as we move forward. We don’t want to smooth out the rough edges. [The music] should never become some kind of cogent statement.”

“When I write most of my plays, I just hear voices,” Ann Marie told me. “I’m not thinking about who they are. Sometimes they’re not even bodies who exist in space. I like the idea of voices divorced from context, characters who create their universe through speaking, carving it out with language.”

Now That’s What I Call a Storm was produced last spring by Edge Theater Company. In the spring of 2003, Healy’s play Somewhere Someplace Else was produced in New York with Clubbed Thumb and in Austin with Frontera/Hyde Park Theater where it was the recipient of two Austin Critics’ Table Awards. Her writing is published with Samuel French, Smith and Kraus and The Kenyon Review. Ann Marie is a member of 13P and a former member of the Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab. A workshop of When He Gets That Way will be mounted this winter.

Jason Grote is a playwright and co-chair of the Soho Rep Writer-Director Lab.

IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: editorial@brooklynrail.org.

Contributor

Jason Grote

Jason Grote is the author of 1001, Maria/Stuart, and Hamilton Township. He is writing the screenplay for What We Got: DJ Spooky's Quest For The Commons, and co-hosting the Acousmatic Theater Hour on WFMU.

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