Creating Claire, by Joe DiPietro, played at the Henthorne Performing Arts Center, produced by Heller Theatre. I didn’t get a chance to see it until the last performance on Sunday, but I’m going to write about it nonetheless. If you’ve been reading this space for a while, you may have noticed that my reviews don’t necessarily stick to a typical pattern, but instead can go off in some highly personalized directions. And so it is here.
First of all, the cast was wonderful. Liz Masters portrayed the caring but often clueless Claire with delicacy and her usual assurance. Dave Garcia is always a solid presence onstage, and this part was tailor made for him. Miriam Mills’ performance avoided mannerisms and presented a strong, clear character. And Haley Clark, as the autistic teen who is caught in the middle of her parent’s conflicts, was fearless in her commitment to some emotionally gut wrenching moments. Director Kathryn Hartney was in clear control of the material and marshalled her actors to good effect. Finally, the video segments supported the action and added an additional dimension. (And what is it with all these different groups doing such a great job using projections? That’s four in a row now, from Theatre Pops, Theatre Tulsa, Clark, and Heller.)
So why didn’t I like the show more? Well, to cut to the chase, I didn’t like the script. Everyone in the cast gave solid performances all around, but in service to a script that kept me at arm’s length from the main characters. And I couldn’t help feeling that the playwright was telling me how I was supposed to feel.
Claire embraces a faith she’s apparently never given a moment’s thought before. She seems to simply drift there. She doesn’t profess it with any passion, or with any sense of a ‘conversion experience’—she reassures everyone she hasn’t really changed that much. It apparently comes out of the heartbreak of trying to raise an autistic child, but her faith seems curiously flat, almost an intellectual exercise rather than anything heartfelt. She loses her job and her marriage, but remains placid. Her husband Reggie drifts away from her and their child in a similarly lackadaisical manner, giving up their long term relationship with little more than a sigh. And other than the briefest of moments, we don’t see either of them attempt to connect with their daughter other than to correct and/or control her.
The reviews of other productions have been wildly divergent. Some reviewers found it thoughtful and powerful, others found it manipulative and off putting. Paradoxically, the NY Times, which I read religiously (ha, did you see what I did there?), was the harshest in its criticism and yet the review I thought most missed the point. It focused on the whole “Science vs. Religion” controversy as if that was the heart of the play. Which it is not. The play actually asks the question, “Why do people have faith; why do they believe in what they can’t understand or explain?” Which is an excellent question, and worth the struggle to explore, and resonates with our current cultural moment in ways that are myriad and profound. But, imho, the playwright never intended to actually explore that question, because he already knew the answer before he started writing. The play simply presents his answer. And the audience is expected to take that answer on . . . faith, I guess. Because, as we all know, playwrights are experts when it comes to such matters.
Here in Oklahoma, with the stage legislature acting like mutaween enforcing sharia law from their crumbling citadel over in the City, and with prominent pastors all across the country lining up behind the most dangerous politician we’ve seen in our lifetime, it’s a little embarrassing to have to point out that we’re not playing fair here. And yes, of course, playwrights stack the deck of their story, but it’s best done for the sake of pleasure, not propaganda. Hard to even imagine that this joyless weight was written by the same playwright who gave us I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, a multi-voiced, exuberant exploration of love amongst the moderns. But the temptation to pontificate is strong. Just ask any critic. Nevertheless, the old saying is still true: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”
Feel free to disagree in the comments.
F: Some theatres would think you were doing pretty good to only be $100 in the red.
D: Well, that meant zero operating funds. I wrote a letter to the community “we need to raise 17K to fund the next season to continue on.” We operate on an annual budget of about 25 thousand dollars. It may be small compared to some of the other theatres, but if you don’t have it . . . Fortunately we own our own building--
F: That’s huge.
D: Everything we have to work with we own.
F: So you wrote the letter. What happened?
D: Once the letter hit, the Sapulpa Herald published it. Then the Tulsa World reporter who covers Sapulpa, calls us and says she wants an interview with me. We were rehearsing Quilters at the time. She came out, they did a story just before we had our sale. (The board decided we’d have like a garage sale, sell everything we didn’t absolutely have to have). The story ran in the Tulsa World. That Saturday at the sale, channel 8 news showed up and interviewed me about the whole situation.
F: Very cool.
D: Yes. Donations started coming in, it was clear the community didn’t want the theatre shut down. I had a friend call me and said they had a check for us. I said that’s awesome. She said she needed to hand deliver it, we decided to meet for coffee. But then she said, I need to tell you how much this check is for. It’s for $10,000. I just cried. “The theatre’s going to be okay.” It came from the Lloyd K & Peggy L Stephens Foundation. It’s a foundation out of Tulsa. They saw the article in the paper and they believed in small towns, they decided this was something they wanted to donate to.
F: That must have gone a long way.
D: Yes. American Heritage Bank in Sapulpa has been a strong supporter all these years. I went there and talked to the president there, and I laid out the situation. We discussed it a little, eventually they gave us 5,000.
F: Great to see a local business stepping up in that kind of way.
D: It really is. And we got other donations from other local businesses as well. We opened our season with “You Can’t Take it With You.” Which was fitting. It was our 25th season in that theatre, and the very first show we’d ever done there, in 1989, was “You Can‘t Take it With You.” And we had sold out houses all six performances, and then sold out the next show as well. We sold 130 season tickets that season.
F: What’s your capacity?
D: 88. We started off with 76, then added a row.
F: That’s a great percentage of season tickets
D: The community support has really come around. And I think our choice of shows has improved.
F: What’s your philosophy there?
D: Play to the community. We have a very small local community. And we’ve got an audience that knows they can go to Tulsa for avant-garde or edgy shows. We need to be family friendly here. So that’s what we’re focused on. We may end up with a season of all comedies one season. If that’s what sells the tickets and keeps the doors open then that’s what we’re going to do. I feel like we have to answer to our supporters. They came out and supported us, we need to give them the entertainment they would like.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
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BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
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Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
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Tulsa Project Theatre
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