"I don't think my plays have protagonists," Will Arbery shared.
It's true. His plays are devoid of a central figure; that'd be too much pressure on one person. Arbery—tender, clement, and an exposed nerve who shines with a quiet charisma—does not intend to be the center of attention, even as his career is exploding, and so it seems fair that he wouldn't force a principal role on anyone else, even a fictional character. Appropriately enough, after our interview, he suggested I perhaps lead with the first person in this profile; it was the first time an interviewee offered that idea.
His suggestion may have been because we discussed, at length, our Catholic upbringings and the role it now plays in my life and his works. But more simply, his offer may have been one of immense humility, one of the less vexing gifts of inherited Catholicism and something Arbery has in spades.
April 8 – May 11, New York
Warm as he is, Arbery's plays deftly excavate bleak truths out of even bleaker circumstances: Evanston Salt Costs Climbing confronts climate change and capitalism, Heroes of the Fourth Turning erupts the ire and fears of red-state conservatives fighting to be heard, and Plano—which Clubbed Thumb premiered in last year's Summerworks and is now reviving for a limited Off-Broadway run—follows Texan sisters and the shadows of masculinity that haunt them. In these unnerving and harrowing plays, even the darkest moments seem to flicker with a unified, shimmering brilliance: truth without answers, finality without resolve.
Arbery's isolated characters, each scaling their own Everest, seek community as hungrily as they pursue solutions to their dire circumstances. As a result, his pieces are often ensemble-driven, and even his more disagreeable characters, on the fringe of the communities to which they're so desperate to belong, are treated empathetically. In Heroes of the Fourth Turning, Teresa, a young Bannonite, worries that her political convictions are costing her more than her friends.
What are you scared of?
That my wedding won't be beautiful. That it just won't be beautiful. That people won't know how to celebrate me, or my love. That people won't trust my love with Patrick, they'll walk away saying: "I wonder how long that will last."
Pause. She gets quieter.
Or just that people don't know me, that I don't let them know me
That I'm too private with my love
Or that I don't really know how to love at all
The search for belonging is not an uncommon impulse for a writer to chase. "I often imagined scenarios in which I was the other," Arbery said. "Growing up the only brother among seven sisters in a conservative Catholic environment, there was a fear I would be gay, and I was aware of that from a very young age."
Before studying at Kenyon College—and then Northwestern for his masters—Arbery went to a grammar and high school run by Hungarian monks in Dallas, where he was "growing up with the expectation that I might be gay," he said. Arbery is straight, but he remembers "feeling like whatever it is that people are talking about, I feel a kinship with because of how much it was projected onto me. It's a really. . . I don't know if I've ever tried to articulate this. The sheer fact that I was being viewed through that lens was like I was identifying with something. I didn't even know what sex was, but I was already identifying with the other."
Queerness and Catholicism—or many religions, for that matter—are often incongruous, and so Arbery's plays frequently examine identity through faith. The desire to explore religion started early as his parents are celebrated Catholic professors at the tops of their field.
"I grew up with two extremely articulate, brilliant, poetic thinkers for parents; from a very young age it was very clear they were very Catholic, very conservative," Arbery said. "But it was always poetic—I don't know how else to describe it. It was thoughtful, it had gravitas, it was formidable."
Arbery's parents greatly influence his plays, as do his sisters who became the inspiration for Plano (performances begin again April 8 at the Connelly Theatre). Plano follows three sisters—no, not those sisters, though Arbery's characters share a similar distress to Chekhov's infamous trio—who are stricken with a series of strange plagues. "I can't think of a play I've written where my sisters don't factor in just a little bit," Arbery said. "I feel really grateful—it's terrifying to imagine where I would be, who I would be if I didn't have each and every one of them. I just love them all so much."
Nuanced female characters permeate Arbery's plays, as does faith. If Christopher Durang wrote for wound-licking and satire-seeking Catholics in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and The Marriage of Bette and Boo, Arbery writes for the steadfast ones clinging to beliefs in the face of cataclysmic cultural shifts in Heroes of the Fourth Turning and Plano.
Both of those plays—along with Evanston Salt Costs Climbing—feature eerie, supernatural omens that are never quite explained. In Heroes, the roar from a screeching generator ever on the fritz spookily, terrifyingly disrupts the debates of Catholic college alumni trying to understand their place in a nation they once ruled. In Plano, a masked man lurks in the shadows and haunts the play's lone unmarried sister who is desperate for purpose and a companion. And in Evanston, a lady in a purple hat curses a street salter as heated pavers threaten to make him and his job obsolete.
"I never mean to, but I always have something in my plays that becomes a real question mark that never has a satisfying answer because if it did it wouldn't be a question mark," Arbery said. "I can't help it. These devices feel so much more realistic to me than having a satisfying dramaturgical answer for everything in the play. I guess I believe in mystery, I believe in the unanswerable."
Are we discussing faith again?
"We might be," Arbery laughed. These unanswered questions—and the splintered, ominous worlds of Arbery's plays—can leave audiences itchy. "When I was at Cape Cod Theatre Project last summer, developing Heroes, an audience member asked me pretty pointedly, 'What is the generator, what is that sound, why don't you tell us what that is?'" Arbery recalled. A moment later, there was a startling, crazed sound in the theater. "I said, these things happen!"
"I guess I'm always wondering," he continued, "Can I still have faith without having faith, can I believe in this thing while not believing in this thing?"
It's both a dazzling and simple question. Through a generator, a mask, and a purple hat—and the humming possibility of our belief in them—our existential doubts are often hiding in plain sight. Some of us can ignore them better than others.
For Arbery, anxiety and identity have always been inextricably linked. "A lot of my fears have to do with being a straight white male, and I think the feeling of being watched and the feeling of not knowing whether your desires or secrets or thoughts are okay affects everything I write," he confessed.
"But," he said, "my exhilaration and excitement and sense of belonging has also increased. I really really like the way the conversation has shifted, and I really like being assigned an identity. And I like being evaluated on the grounds of my identity. Now that the cultural discussion has called to task a lot of white writers and male writers, everything that I am, I feel excited. I guess I feel like there's an invitation and a hunger for writers who wanted to tell the truth about the hyper-specific details of what it's like to grow up in the ways that I grew up. The things that I was taught as being 'right' informed so much of the thinking behind where we are right now."
Introspection has, selfishly, not always been characteristic of white people, whose privilege has made us assume our identities are superior and unnecessary to dissect. But identity has long been on Arbery's mind, and its exploration has allowed him to craft stirringly contemplative and profoundly human works.
"I think in terms of thought crimes and the idea that God is watching us all the time and what that breeds socially. Do people know what I'm thinking about? Is it obvious that I'm a horrible person?" he said, laughing. "That kind of stuff."
On my way home after our interview, I felt like I was narrowing in on some kind of conclusion. This slippery thought process reminded me of my own relationship to faith, where belief is fortified by richer questions, not by quicker answers. I tried to define what these breathing omens—the generator and the purple hat and the masked man—mean, but the more definition I tried to ascribe them the less significant they became.
I then thought of the terrified alumni in Heroes and the war they feel is coming. I thought of the sister in Plano who is battling multiple versions of her husband in her head—and in real life.
And then I thought of something else, and it made me shudder: Is paranoia Arbery's protagonist?
Inescapable and omnipresent, it is the dread his characters dance with in each scene, one that seems to go on its own journey. Toward the end of Evanston Salt Costs Climbing, Basil, one of the salters, is stopped mid-thought, frozen by his own existence and plight. "I just found a little sadness for a second," he says. "But I moved through it."
Arbery's characters are constantly reminded of their small sadnesses, ones that reflect larger, seemingly insurmountable issues—climate change, political divide, oppressive masculinity. In the liminal space between despair and possibility, Arbery activates his characters. "I'm passionate about work that serves as both a response to the visible world and an expedition into the invisible world," he said. "I'm passionate about the urgently unexplainable."