A First Look at "The Living"

Audrey Schwartz '20, Hop Marketing and Communications Fellow

Our reporter joins the cast of the Dartmouth Department of Theater's Fall 2019 Mainstage production for their first readthrough of the evocative script. "The Living" runs November 8 through 17.

Located by the Hop Box Office and cafe, the Hop Garage  is a suite of three plain, box-like rooms with black floors, gray walls and white ceilings. Despite that drabness, there's an air of sanctity in main Garage room as the newly finalized cast of The Living and their director sit facing each other at a table for their first readthrough of the script. A cast's first meeting as a group is no ordinary rehearsal — it is a time when prayers are either answered or denied, when the natural chemistry between different actors is tested.

With a play like The Living, the Dartmouth Department of Theater's Mainstage production this fall, such a sanctity seems especially apt: set during an outbreak of the plague in London in 1665, the play is fraught with religious questioning, as nearly the whole meaning of life for its characters turns on the daily discovery (or not) of lethal sores on their skin. Little wonder, then, that the cast members' desire to like one another and work well together is already palpable in the air.

Introducing the play, director Jamie Horton tells the group he goes back thirty years with this play. In the early 1980s, he had just graduated from college and was working in Los Angeles, when an actor with whom he had become friendly died two months after they met. It was his first experience with the AIDS crisis. It quickly became obvious to him and everyone else in the entertainment world that "we were losing friends." In 1988, Horton discovered that a friend from college had written a play in response to the crisis, set during the London plague. Horton acted in the world premier of this play — a "transformative experience in my life as an actor," as it "showed the audience that it [the AIDS crisis] was happening all around us." 

Today, however, Horton remarks, "All too often in affluent parts of the world, we regard horribly infectious diseases as a thing of the past." It only takes a quick channel-flipping through the news, or a mental survey of the buzzword-level viruses, to explode this myth. Horribly infectious diseases are not a thing of the past for other parts of the world, and global interconnectedness renders us all vulnerable: even if we want to hide from rather than help others, we may not be able to.

Underscoring this point, Horton tells the group that a specialist in infectious diseases from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Elizabeth Talbot, will be working with this production as a liaison to the public, hoping to translate its emotional resonance into modern-day science. Talbot writes, "In today's world, disease anywhere is disease everywhere," and that her job is "not to fear-monger, but to empower" — that is, to educate people about the dangers that we face so that we can protect ourselves. (And the dangers are real: according to the World Health Organization, if a virus like the infamous Spanish Influenza broke out today, it could spread around the world in less than 36 hours.)

Horton echoes this distinction, reminding the cast that this play is "not about alarmism, but bringing people together." The play is important and timely because "we're one superbug away from dealing with something like this [the deadly plague in the play]," and we need to know not only how to handle that practically but also emotionally.

After the actors go around the table telling their characters' names, Horton notes that he's excited about the cast being more gender-diverse than the original script calls for because it's going to make the play "bigger." He states that he's "not interested in women imitating men" and instead wants each female playing a male to first find out how she "as a human being" relates to the material, and then they will "overlay that in subtle ways" with gender (such as through masculine costumes). The cast members nod and, without further ado, the read-through of the script begins. 

From the very first page, the writing grabs me — and I mean that in a literal sense, as the actors' and actresses' confident voices pull me off of the couch at the side of the room, where I've been taking notes, closer to the table where magic is underway. 

"'For all that we knew, the world would end in 1665,'" a narrator begins, and the force of this proposition is enhanced rather than dampened by the nondescript room in which it is made. Certain members of the cast embody their characters with seeming effortlessness: there is already harried desperation in Sarah Chandler's (Kerrigan Quenemoen '20) voice, the fervent need to believe that a disaster is not on the horizon even when it is. And there is, as there always is in plays that are set in England, the play of classes and class-consciousness that is no less insightful for its bluntness. The jostling, pushy dialogue of petitioners shifts abruptly to the sensible, elevated speech of the upper classes, and the cast accentuates these tonal differences without missing a beat. 

Audiences will undoubtedly be amused by Sir John's (Jenna Gallagher '21) mistrust of the then-novel idea of standing in a glass box to protect him from the airborne "contagion" carried by his petitioners, if only because we have all so often stood on the other side of just such a glass wall. As the readthrough continues, bits of laughter burst forth from the cast — partly from the awkwardness of swearing in front of one another for the first time, partly from one actor's maiden efforts at a British accent, but mostly, it seems, from the humor of the text itself. It takes a particular sort of play to bring levity to the bubonic plague without simply descending into dark humor, but The Living does exactly that, a fact that appears to delight the cast every bit as much as it does me. (One example: "Just a moment. Are you proposing the government pay for medical care?") 

The supreme strength, force and confidence with which Gallagher voices Sir John even in this first reading prevents me from growing suspicious of Sir John's occasional moralizing. When doctors flee the city to tend to their rich patients and Sir John asks, "'What about the servants? What about the laborers? What about anyone who works for a living?'", this line reads in Gallagher's voice as exactly what it's supposed to be — a moving plea — rather than an obligatory recitation of what we're "supposed" to care about. It's also worth noting that at this juncture in the play, those who can afford to leave are trying to convince each other to do so (the common people be damned), just as the wealthy would no doubt do today.

Other themes, less couched in jocularity and the stoic British wit, are equally resonant. At one point, a character explains wearily, "'People believe [that the disease is not the plague] because they want to.'" While the sentiment of self-delusion is age-old, it gains new life here: it silently asks the unsettling question, would we be any wiser today? What precautions and protections would we be willing to forgo in order to hold onto the belief that we weren't in danger in the first place? 

Later, a (painfully naive, and thus brilliantly acted) merchant asks, "'What kind of man profits from others' misfortunes?'" While the upper classes sin through selfishness and the abandonment of their city, the lower classes find ways to profit from the unexpected mobility offered by mass deaths, prompting a patently hypocritical disgust from their wealthier neighbors. It requires little, if any, imagination to map this state of affairs onto any affluent society's disdain for its impoverished members who have to resort to crime. The play, written as a single line between 1665 and the 1980s, now triangulates those points in history with 2019 before my eyes.

As the play continues, Sir John emerges as the play's moral center, the classic I-was-nobody-important-until-there-was-no-one-but-me-left-to-save-the-world figure. Urging that "we're supposed to live in hope," Sir John again bridges the divide between then and now: whatever our current problems may be, the injunction to live in hope is fundamentally human rather than historical; it bears no time-stamp of the bubonic plague or the AIDS crisis. Religion (embodied in the Reverend Thomas Vincent, read with both vehemence and vulnerability by Sophia Kinne '20), makes an interesting plea here — not for its truth, but simply for its necessity in a time of uncertainty. Although we are accustomed to thinking of centuries gone by as more religious than our own, it's impossible not to wonder whether we wouldn't, in the event of an epidemic, feel much the same way. 

By the time that the swirling scenes of the play return to Sarah Chandler, Quenemoen's desperation has reached a fever pitch, leaping beyond the merely believable to the genuinely moving. While this is not a play devoted primarily to character development (it is, if the two may be divided, more concerned with social relations), one cannot help but notice the slight but significant revolution taking place within Sir John. Confronted with Sarah's desperation, he manages to give hope to her at the outset of Act II, rather than just insisting that she should already be hopeful. At this crucial moment, Gallagher endows her tone with both a richness of empathy and a firmness of purpose, setting up a good contrast to the somewhat unhinged passion in Reverend Vincent, who has begun to question God. To have a reverend question God as a sort of final sign that a situation is truly dire is not a new device, but what will amaze audiences in this play is what follows the reverend's impassioned speech — a striking scene made possible partly by the author, partly by the set designer, and partly by the eloquence of Kinne herself. 

Overall, the cast appears to experience no discomfort with the script — and, perhaps even more surprisingly, with reading alongside one another for the first time. They read, whether the words are in complex dialogue or curt lines, with absolute assurance. When they stop (as they have to once or twice) to ask about the pronunciation of a medical term, the momentary interruption does nothing to pierce the emotion in their lines. They are already, in this first reading, very much "in" their characters. When I think about the wonders that the cast members are already able to weave with these words, with still a month and a half to go of improvements and alterations, only one word can adequately capture the moment: possibility. 

Meet Audrey Schwartz '20 and the other 2019/20 Hop Fellows