The simple metal folding chair. A stackable staple of fellowship halls and school auditoriums. That clunky, hinged platform for our rear ends, our bedraggled bodies; that lowly mobile-home version of furniture that makes possible everything from the kids’ table at Thanksgiving to 12 step programs in church basements to competitive Bridge games to overflow crowds at municipal hearings. The folding chair is bedrock of modern society, when you think about it, making it possible for humans to gather together to sit and meet, drink bad coffee, talk and listen and heal.
It’s also the only prop in the altogether brilliant play, Together We are Making a Poem in Honor of Life, used to powerful effect to represent presence and absence, folded-up emotion, and the bare-bone rawness of parental loss. And it’s what the audience remains absolutely glued to (with cushioned seat) throughout the riveting hour and 15-minute performance.
You’d be correct if you assume that a play revolving around two parents reeling after their son is killed in a school shooting sounds heavy, but you’d be missing out on world-class acting if you shied away. The performances by Monica Wyche, playing the mother Rebecca, and her real-life husband and collaborator Dean Poyner, in the role of Brian, are some of the best I’ve ever seen, at Spoleto, on Broadway, in London’s West End or anywhere. As one audience member said to the actors afterwards: “I don’t know how you can channel all that emotion and can still be sitting upright.” Thank god for those sturdy chairs.
The Gage Hall stage setting is ideal, and so up-close and personal that there’s no room for any misstep, and there were none. Director Anne Kelly Tromsness has harnessed the sparseness of the space and the actors’ dynamism to perfect harmony — the play is not over-produced, and the setting feels real but not threatening (the audience is comfortable; the play is not interactive). Wyche is especially compelling — shifting seamlessly from monologue to dialogue, from tears and rage to tangled relationship psychology, to humor and hilariously self-deprecating “Mom-ologue” bits about her many parental and personal failures, including not drinking enough water and slouching.
Aristotle introduced the idea of catharsis, that notion of emotional release and cleansing (derived from the Greek katharos, meaning “pure”) that a theater audience experiences, but with this urgent play, The Salvage Company somehow takes that ancient concept a step further. To where, exactly, I’m still not quite sure. But I do know that when I stood up from my cushioned folding chair after the play and walked out of Gage Hall and back in to my so-called real life, I’d experienced not so much a sense of vicarious release but some kind of transformative immersion. I was different. Perhaps even part of me salvaged. The part that reads the paper and listens to news reports and shakes my head at my inability to fully comprehend the depth of the tragedies that now, inexplicably, seem to be nonchalant daily occurrences.
This is the power of drama. Not to make pure, but to make real. Grab your partner and/or friends, your loved ones, your neighbor from the other side of your political spectrum, and go see it. Tonight.