Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Danny & the Deep Blue Sea: A Meditation on Moments of Grace 

K. and I had the great pleasure of seeing Danny and the Deep Blue Sea at the Second Stage Theatre Company last week. It's a play that I've loved for many years and performed the first act as my final scene work in grad school. It's an early John Patrick Shanley (the author of Moonstruck for those of you who don't do theatre) play and it shows the hallmarks of his best work. In some ways, it might be his best work.

Seeing the play now, some seventeen years since I first performed parts of it, I saw some new things in it. As K wisely noted, at the end of the play Danny and his newfound, misfit mate Roberta have a chance at finding grace for themselves as a couple, no matter what their basic limitations are as individuals. This idea of finding "grace" is something that I've been thinking about in different contexts for some time.

Some years ago, my friend Crissa gave me a wonderful book called "Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees" by Laurence Weschler. It's a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. Irwin is a fascinating character and his transformation from abstract expressionist to someone who designs experiences and spaces like the Getty Gardens and Dia:Beacon is a remarkable journey.

About 100 pages into the book, Weschler comments on the one of Irwin's epiphanies: that the "grace" that came in and took over his artistic process only arrived after hours, days or months of preparation. And that the grace would never arrive without that preparation and was somehow both a direct result (chemical) and also somehow a magical result beyond the effort applied (alchemical). This idea of grace entering the creative process through hard work seems to apply to our lives in their entirety, as well as our creative processes.

Some years before I read this book, I was privileged to listen to a sermon given by the (then) wonderfully named Leslie Faithful at the Scarsdale Congregational Church. (I understand that Leslie has since returned to her maiden name and also transitioned from the ministry to a psychology practice.) In addition to being a minister, Leslie was a painter. In this sermon, she talked about how she'd planned a trip to Berlin in which she planned to tour the Wall. Before her arrival date, the Wall fell. When she arrived she found herself in the struggling with the feeling of being disappointed that it was gone.

Leslie then discussed her process as a painter. How she longed for the grace to take over her brush and the hours to disappear, after which a finished work would seem to "arrive" full blown on her canvas.

But she had discovered over the years that the grace only arrived after she got the strength to take out some canvas, put it on a stretcher, sketch in the rough outlines of the image she was envisioning, mixed her paints, put her brush in the paint, and finally begin what seemed to be the pedestrian work of filling in the outlines. After some time in this mode, the "other" would take over.

Leslie pulled the threads of her sermon together by acknowledging something that we all know in our hearts: evil is a better spectator sport than good. And that is, in part, because good requires work. Evil in a sense is easy. And the evil of the Berlin Wall is easier to appreciate because it's so apparent, as opposed to the inherent good of the wall simply not being present anymore.

Part of what makes Danny and the Deep Blue Sea such an interesting piece is that Danny and Roberta are both deeply damaged character whom we would either mock or be scared of if we encountered them in real life. Both are products of severely broken families whose scars are manifest in extreme behaviors. Danny is literally fighting his way back and forth across the streets of the Bronx in an effort to stave off the tidal waves of despair he feels. Roberta is a near agoraphobe whose managed to escape her parents' extra room for a night in the hopes of connecting briefly with someone who is not intertwined in the morass of her life.

In the course of the play, they fumble through the hard work of finding a connection. And it's nearly impossible. Danny doesn't like to be talked to, much less touched. Roberta is conflicted whether she wants to "talk nice" or be literally strangled for her sins.

Somehow, they succeed in finding their moment of grace. Danny has one of the most unexpected insights we could expect from a man of his intellectual capacity. He realizes that both his and Roberta's lives have been determined up to this point by their own unconscious behavior. And that with each other's support they have an opportunity to try to take control of their lives and will themselves to happiness. Somehow, even these two damaged souls can imagine that through sheer hard work, they can continue to build a life together with the expectation that the grace will come.

Can we really ask for anything else?
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