For any who many still require it, last Tuesday's election offered proof that people are talking different languages and vilifying each other -- with no interest in an interpreter or understanding another's perspective and how they arrived at it. The arts offer the much need common language and understanding, even when one does not realize he or she needs it. And the arts in my hometown, Philadelphia, are flourishing.
An extraordinary theatrical experience that confronts this human dilemma --- why people are so angry, and have such a hard time hearing each other --- and what can help us to grow up, leave childish stubbornness behind, and understand another, can be found in Lucas Hnath's play, "Red Speedo," which opened here in Philadelphia on November 5th.
An uncommonly talented playwright, Hnath. 33, was raised in Orlando, Florida, captivated by both the evangelical church he attended and the theatricality of the Disney World, and arrived at NYU in 1997 as a pre-med student. Upon seeing "Benita Canova," by the avant-garde director Richard Foreman, he decided to become a writer.
First, however, disclosure: Hnath's "Red Speedo," which opened in South Philly's Theatre Exile's 28 foot wide Theatre X was directed by my daughter-in-law, Deborah Block, one of the theatre's artistic directors. I knew of Deborah's work long before she married my stepson, as she was one of the founders of our Philly Fringe Festival.
I write, however, because of the profound experience of Hnath's powerful play in these angry and complicated times. Although Lucas Hnath decided not to become a doctor, his innate diagnostic skills are put to admirable use in "Red Speedo," where his writing shows that he is a healer. "Speedo" examines the dynamics of helplessness and ambition in the context of human frailty, culminating in the conclusion that autonomy is the only road to sane survival and the ability to form stable relationships.
No spoiler alert re plot is necessary. But you should know that a major star is an eighteen foot Olympic size (but shallow) pool in the very limited Theatre X space built by set designer, Colin McIlvaine.
The story line of "Red Speedo" revolves around a competitive swimmer, Ray, played by Brian Ratcliffe, who nails the perfect combination of sexual appeal, naivety, insecurity and charm in his portrayal of a needy kid on the eve of the Olympic trials - a kid whose whole life has been swimming. Throughout the play Ray wears red briefs, which can be best described as exceptionally Speedo; and his body hair has been shaved for the part.
Upon meeting Ray, I remembered hearing of a competitive swimmer's application to an Ivy League College. When the aspiring student was asked to describe himself, he wrote only one word, "Wet," and was accepted. Ray, however, has no such educational aspirations. He is far too self destructive and devoid of confidence to feel capable of anything outside of the pool, and we learn that his confidence there is shockingly inadequate.
Ray's brother, Peter, a lawyer with a questionable approach to the stated ethics of his profession, is played by Keith Conallen with such intensity that those in the front rows could see his face turning red, his veins pulsing, and the sweat pouring down. Peter elicits compassion, however, because he too is lost as he tries to provide his kids and wife far more than he or his brother ever saw. Ray's Coach is not given a personal name in this play. He is, in essence, the rep for Everyman's personal and professional turmoil --- the decisions to be confronted and made in the high stakes challenges of nurturance and success.
There is also Ray's former (and somewhat present) lover, Lydia, played by Jaylene Clark Owens as the big tough momma Ray is desperate for. Lydia has been compromised, unprotected, and violated. Her choices, her descent, and her yearning for escape force us to question if her nature is innately devious or if manipulation is the only survival option open to her?
Though the focus of "Red Speedo" is competitive sports, and the world of steroids and bravado, this cover is but a metaphor for life in today's world where those who do not agree are condemned and vilified. The play insists that we question the notion that any person is all good or all bad. It shows that each is trying to survive and succeed, and insists that we each look inward and confront a hellishly unsettling question: "To what lengths would I be willing to go (or have I gone) to get what I want?"
Further, it asks us to look squarely at the reality that even those who speak of love can easily devour for their own purposes. As we reach adulthood we can clearly understand the brutal warning in the fairy-tale, "Little Red Riding Hood" --- those who purport to love may well be the wolf in disguise. "Red Speedo" shows that understanding this and decidedly freeing yourself from any force that keeps you from defining your own path in life must be shaken off, sometimes with force.
At the same time the play gives the notion of "fairness" a well deserved punch (you name the place). For some come into this world with far, far more opportunity for love and success than others. And "Red Speedo" asks what, if anything, can/should be done to even the playing ground.
On opening night, though "Speedo" offers a consistent tonic of comic relief, by the spellbinding mid-point one could have heard a pin drop: The audience was far too enthralled to laugh.
"Red Speedo" is scheduled to run at South Philly's Theatre X from October 30 to November 23. If you go, take time to admire the sleek authenticity of the supposed Olympic pool: like the characters in "Speedo," it is deceptively shallow. And if you sit in the first row, prepare to get wet.