“An unhappy family,” said Tolstoy, “is unhappy after its own fashion.” Was he talking about the art of the stage? Two unhappy families couldn’t be less alike in their unhappiness than the contemporary Greek-Americans of Flesh and Blood and the 13th-century Chinese of The Orphan of Zhao. Different not only in their behavior but in their mores, the two plead for different physical worlds, for nearly antithetical modes of performance. Thanks to two inventive directors with a sense of acting values, they get them.
That might sound like a normal occurrence in the theater; at one time it would have been. Today, regrettably, the theater is style conscious—or more precisely, anti-style conscious—to a poisonous degree. Directors are actively encouraged to Þll their productions with irrelevance, drabness, and stasis, while academic assholes (who now educate most of our budding theater artists) speak gravely of cognitive dissonance, deconstruction, the postmodern dilemma, and similar jargon-ridden concepts. From the audience’s point of view, what this tendency amounts to is boredom; every production looks the same, or at any rate as outré and arbitrary, as its predecessor. This doesn’t help matters in a time when the theater’s struggling for recognition against the massively empty blare of the manufactured media. No wonder I’m delighted to salute two directors who saw their task differently, allowing a dramatic narrative to function and aiming their performers to enhance it. And they did so, as I’ve said, in wildly diverging ways.
In both cases, their source material’s unfamiliar to me: I haven’t read either Michael Cunningham’s novel Flesh and Blood or the 13th-century Chinese play from which The Orphan of Zhao is taken; I’m willing to pay both adaptors the compliment of assuming that their work gives a reasonable representation of the originals. In each case, what you get is something like a bare but Þrm matrix; in each case, the performance makes this skeleton dance. That you may end up feeling slightly disappointed in the dramatic substance of both texts—one altogether too schematic, both too cursory in their endings—barely dampens your sense of having experienced something substantial. The sense of life is in the telling, not in the quality of the story.
Both stories are family sagas with villainous father Þgures. In Flesh and Blood, a Greek immigrant boy, getting to America after World War II, rises to become a wealthy building contractor. Having married, while still poor, a WASP girl whose brother is on the same work gang, he sires three children on her before their fundamental incompatibility takes over. In his struggle to Þll the vacuum of their dead marriage, he abuses his elder daughter sexually and his son physically; the kids grow up, respectively, a repressed Republican housewife and an angry gay. The younger daughter, in her efforts to rouse parental attention, becomes a promiscuous drug user, duly acquiring AIDS and an illegitimate child of color. You recognize the pattern: American novels have been mapping this ganglion of generational conþicts since the days of Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. The openly gay material is newer but still hardly surprising. Either Cunningham or his adaptor, Peter Gaitens, has structured it all tidily but not granted it very much individuality; the events—a divorce, a child’s death, an unexpected surge of violence at a family occasion—unfold predictably, with a pat formality that suggests a short fable rather than a very long novel. The grit of reality, which is what you would expect to Þnd, seems mostly smoothed away, leaving you with the kind of questions that pick naggingly at the story’s credibility.
But that’s to reckon without Douglas Hughes and his cast. First of all, it’s his cast (casting is 90 percent of directing): If you are the kind of person who thinks English actors are better trained (or just better), see this play and Þnd out what a damned fool you are. Here on one stage are Jessica Hecht, Martha Plimpton, Peter Frechette, Jeff Weiss, and Sean Dugan, each giving the kind of performance that could make their colleagues weep with envy. I would call it a wall of wonderful acting, except that walls are barren and monolithic; this powerful lineup is vivid and varied, a mosaic full of glittering bits of great acting. People will talk for years about its peaks: the moment when Weiss, gone blind, slams shut a drawer he can’t see, or the eerie vacant look and growling voice that seem to take possession of Hecht in a funeral scene.
And the glittering mosaic itself is like a backdrop for the best performance of the lot: Cherry Jones as the family’s unassuming, innocently oblivious matriarch. This is acting. Work so good, so spontaneous and organic, puts critics in a dreadful dilemma: There’s not enough space to describe it, and rhapsodizing over it makes you sound foolish. I want to say that Jones’s performance is as evanescent as moonlight, and yet as wholesome and straightforward as apple pie. If this sounds like gibberish to you, you had better go see her for yourself and make up your own superlatives.
When so many performers are pitched in unison to tell a story this complex, so that your interest never wavers for a moment, the credit belongs to the director. So, presumably, does some of the praise for Christine Jones’s bold and broad set, a wooden deck and staircase backed by a line of trees; for Scott Zielinski’s evocative lighting, which shapes inner emotional spaces as easily as it does realistic rooms; for Paul Tazewell’s costumes, unobtrusively conveying the family’s shifts of income, decade, and attitude. If the blood in Cunningham’s vision of American family life runs a little thin, the þesh Hughes and company put on it has a vibrant reality.
The blood in The Orphan of Zhao is inescapable. Because the story’s rife with it, director Chen Shi-Zheng has made it the evening’s central image: The stage is a lake of blood—or at least of red-dyed water—with the action taking place on a square of white island at its center. To show that time has passed, when the years have tracked too much blood over this central area, stagehands come out and lay a fresh white mat over it. And it’s a measure of the thoroughness of Chen’s sensibility that he makes a musical effect of the stomping noise with which they tamp down the fresh mat. The story here is big and basic, but Chen’s vision of Beijing opera is a realm in which every stage of the telling must make a speciÞc beautiful shape of its own, and each shape must be slightly different from the others. The outrageous violence of the narrative, and the outrageous comedy that augments it for variety’s sake, are ennobled, or at least made humane, by the elegant dignity of this string of structures. Carrying a tradition-bound art into a culture both contemporary and foreign, Chen doesn’t so much update it as let its ancient stylization evolve into modern Western abstraction. The result sometimes resembles Martha Graham; sometimes, too, it looks like calligraphy, only done with bodies in lieu of brush strokes.
Though we see little violence, the story’s body count is high. A general who is one of the emperor’s two top advisers hates and fears his coeval, a kindly civil servant. Contriving a fake charge of treason, he seizes the excuse to exterminate the civil servant’s clan. Only one grandchild, son of the civil servant’s son and the emperor’s daughter, survives, thanks to a good-hearted but oaÞsh doctor and a cunning but true retired statesman. The general’s vengeance is boundless; to keep the child alive, the doctor must sacriÞce his own newborn child, and the statesman his life. By one of those majestic ironies that ring so true in giant sagas, the childless general mistakes the doctor for an ally, adopting his “son,” really the orphan of the murdered clan, as the heir to his power. Just as the general begins plotting to kill the emperor and take over, the boy turns 20 and learns who he really is. You know who wins the climactic Þght.
But your knowing in advance doesn’t diminish the fascination of this or the play’s other events, because each step in the story is a ceremony, a dance, a vaudeville routine, or a game as well as a dramatic scene. Chen’s imaginative repertoire is wide, his visual sense exact, and his taste unerring. He demands a lot from his actors, though the event is a mere 80 minutes long. The speaking and singing are not always pitched as precisely as the movement; only David Patrick Kelly, as the general, seems equally assured in all three departments. But the sweet haplessness of Rob Campbell’s doctor, and Jenny Bacon’s grave beauty, as both the emperor’s daughter and her avenging son, are only slightly diminished delights. David Greenspan’s text, þipping with Shakespearean airiness from the hieratic to the coarse and back again, rings like the real thing, especially when supported by the delicious Nanjing-meets-Nashville sound of Stephin Merritt’s music. Chen’s sensibility invests every aspect of the evening with grace, while never losing sight of everyday reality. What’s most striking is how effective and upsetting the stylized killings are—far more than literalized movie splatter would be.