The Douglas Tree

March 11th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mike Sepesy’s play is the second in a trilogy of plays that involve families in a tangle of tragic events wrapped in mystical and elusive images that allow the present world to blend seamlessly with what is mythic or lying under the pond of our unconscious. The first being The Alice Seed, which I saw as a reading at the Cleveland Play House early last year and which will be fully staged this fall at Cleveland Public Theatre.

The action largely revolves around Douglas “Dougie” (Allen Branstein) a grown man who is stuck like a tree and cannot move forward with his life: whether his stuckness is due to a metaphysical ailment, a bump on the head he received as a teenager or his alcoholism is difficult to answer. Dougie’s stuckness is altered however when his long-ago ex-girlfriend Cass (Molly McGinnis)—from just before he fell from the truck and bumped his head—shows up to tell him that after that long-ago summer she had a daughter, Rose, (Virginia Konchan) and Dougie is a dad. Dougie, who was planning to kill himself, says that meeting a daughter is worth a few days, and decides to stick around and see what’s what—including that his daughter has brittle bones; her boyfriend, Marc, (James Kosmatka) is an appalling ass; and transforming himself and becoming un-stuck—finding the courage to move forward with his life: a courage for which Dougie’s father, Larry (Don Prather), is no doubt grateful.

Sepesy is very adept at controlling the theatrical elements of The Douglas Tree to layer meaning and effect and force the audience to sort things out: one of the more interesting examples being the use of the daughter and her boyfriend as representations of the younger Dougie and Cass. Perhaps the most stunning moment occurs when the older Dougie (Branstein) walks into the wood to show his daughter (Konchan) the heart he long-ago carved into a tree for Cass: at this moment Branstein opens his shirt and becomes the tree (the heart carved presumably in his chest); at that singular moment the young couple comes to life before our eyes: the young lovers Konchan and Kosmatka—acting out that long ago time. The doubling of the younger actors as both the older Dougie and Cass as well as the current Rose and Marc creates a Bahktinian dialog in terms of the temporal and physical space as well as between the actors and the audience adding the “layers” of meaning I mentioned earlier—and with great success. One of the more brutal moments of the play comes when Dougie “cuts” the heart off the tree using an axe and we see the representation of the young Dougie being axed to death—a scene that takes on the dual meaning of Dougie’s no-doubt strong desire to axe his daughter’s boyfriend Marc. The meaning of this moment is confounded for the audience by two points: Marc never returns to the stage and the absurdist technique of having Dougie go about the stage for the rest of the play wearing a blood-drenched shirt—that no one seems to notice or comment on.

I will save a later post to talk about The Alice Seed, but will here just remark on the obvious “nature” theme running through the titles: seed, tree. I will also note that the two plays draw heavily on family tragedy, absence, loss, and memory—and that Sepesy uses very strong stage images and uses them to create an enchanted environment on the stage that has a heart-wrenching pulse.

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