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29 Bells — Michael Parsons

December 8th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

29 Bells

So, you are familiar with the saying “better late than never”? Well, here’s hoping that this is true. Over a year ago my wife and I took a trip south to Columbus to see a play by my friend and fellow playwright Michael Parsons. The play is 29 Bells, about which I wrote a blog entry when I had the opportunity to go and see a staged reading of the piece. The short point is that it is a marvelous play and it is one of those plays that has the sneaky habit of creeping back into your conscious mind periodically for what appears to be inexplicable reasons.

The reason that a play can take hold of you and constantly return your mind to it are impossible to tease out and identify; especially given that the reason will be different for each person who experiences it. For me, I think the reason the play holds my imagination and mind is that its center is on a family and the life of this family in the past. There is a profound sense of loss in this play and the true and hopeful glimmer for a recovery of some of what has passed–that is, a restoration. Parsons achieves both of these effects which have tremendous dramatic payoff for the audience member. The dark spiraling descent, cast against the all time perfect metaphor (a sinking ship), is, as one would expect: tense; but the relief that comes through hopeful emotional moments and through Parson’s natural humor, bring the audience out of the darkness at the end, yet keep the balance of emotions of the piece in place. For myself, I think of my family and Christmases past and households that were filled with people and light and humor and food and drinking and celebration. During my college years my dad’s mother passed and the center of one family blinked out. The center did not hold and the families dispersed. The light went out, and one side of the family descended into a darkness from which it has never recovered. More recently my other grandparents have passed and the same has happened. Relatives are older, families of their own, people are in different places, etc. That said, of course, now I have a family of my own and we have begun creating our own traditions and the holidays are filling again, and have been for several years, with light, and people, and humor and food and drinking and celebration. Aristotle new well that drama, like life itself, moves in rhythms and that these rhythms are meaningful: they lead us through the various emotional and intellectual events of our life. Parsons captures these very well in what is a sprawling story held tightly together.

I mention Aristotle because it is important in another way. Parsons is a more traditional playwright. That is to say, he writes plays with Aristotelian structures. Plays that are mostly naturalistic. He tends to have strong views on the subject and has admitted the challenges of not writing in this way. His concerns as expressed and his admitted challenges are somewhat surprising given that 29 Bells has some absolutely fantastic moments that show a sense of exploration beyond traditional structures. For instance, throughout the play are a variety of generic structures present: from the rapid fire dialog of the LA power lunch, to the ghost boy (Ricky Isbell) sitting at the ham radio, to the presence of a variety of media sources (radio, television, etc) in the highly dramatic ending to the first act, surreal moments–such as the names of the deceased tattooed on the back of the girlfriend (Natalie Jensen); there is love story, ghost story, family story, hollywood story, etc; and much of the work plays with time and challenges linearity. The list goes on. Parsons has very adeptly woven together a quilt of a variety of pieces of fabric that act as both independent pieces and both shine and reflect on each other–illuminating and deepening character and meaning.

The plot of 29 Bells is fairly straightforward, though thankfully the telling is not. Ian Carlyle (Jeremy Ryan Brown) is sent back to his hometown to write a screenplay about the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in Lake Superior in 1975. It is the same lake on which Ian’s father Hal (Jeff Potts) disappeared (guilt over his not being on the Edmund Fitzgerald–as he should have been–taking its toll). Once in his hometown Ian’s past begins to surround him like the cold lake waters and soon Ian is treading memories and beating back emotions that he did not count on. His mother (Amy Anderson) and former/new girlfriend provide much of the prodding necessary to get Ian to throw off his LA facade and become the true person he should be–one who can accept the totality of who he is, including the events of his past. That is, to become a centered person.

29 Bells could still use a bit of thinning out, a fact of which I am certain that Parson’s is aware, as there are a lot of story lines competing for audience attention: a challenge that I myself face with my most recent play Patterns. Nevertheless, 29 Bells takes several stories which combined have almost epic sweep and manages the impressive feat of joining them together while director LB Rabby keeps the pace up and constantly driving forward. Especially nice is the full cast re-telling of the night the Edmund Fitzgerald went down that dramatically and energetically closes out the first act.

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