Thursday, February 27, 2003

Death be not subtle: Thanatron full of crushing blows

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You read it here first: When the generation now in their 20s and 30s take political power in this country, assisted suicide will be made legal. Nobody wants to die the way we have watched our grandparents and parents die. Much better to die with dignity than to slowly ebb away like a sandbar before a storm.

But dying with a party, before you’re even past your prime? Isn’t that overkill? Carolyn Gage raises questions like these in Thanatron (the latest production by Cauldron & Labrys, her all-women’s theater project) in which a middle-aged mother of four (Molly Hawthorne, played by Liz Rensenbrink) fears her memory is failing, and decides she wants to die. A clever, if overly enthusiastic, Kevorkian–like doctor (played by Sheila Jackson) has determined a means by which people can calculate their quality of life, thereby determining "with 95-percent accuracy" who will want to off themselves and when. He has also built a death machine — Thanatron — to "take the risk out of" suicide.

To make herself feel better about her precipitous decision, Molly throws a farewell party, inviting her whole family and the neighbors. The play follows the family through the lead-up to the party, as they struggle with the concepts of leaving and remembering, and past what is literally a moment of truth.

Is Molly a "progressive woman" who is "ahead of her time," as her husband Frank (Jessica Porter) says, or is she just wishing for release, already so beaten down that she yields to her stereotypically traditional mother even in choosing the dress in which she’ll die.

The family — with the exception of the youngest, Caitlin (Megan Dauphinais), and the lesbian housekeeper (Dani, played by Vic Symonds) — greets Molly’s decision with obvious glee. The two sons go so far as to hand-build a custom-fit coffin for their mother to repose in, and Frank keeps reminding everyone that it is "almost time."

Clearly, Gage has set out to hit the audience over the head with the idea that men, families, and society kill women spiritually long before they die physically. As such, it is a success both on stage — where a renewed Molly literally hits the doctor on the head, leaving him to stagger across the stage into the coffin — and off, when the audience leaves with no room for post-play dialogue or introspection.

All conflicts are resolved on stage, leaving no openings for wonder or further intellectual investigation after the show is over. As the play ends, women are vindicated, triumphant and empowered. This excellent and exciting message is delivered, over and over again, in a painstakingly literal play.

Nothing is left to the imagination, nor even to involved spectation. When there is a point to be made, it is laid out in so many words. First there is the doctor, played by a woman but clearly a male character, and his phallic-symbol IV-drip stand feeding on the very idea of the death of a woman. Caitlin and Dani, one who says she wants to be a lesbian when she grows up and the other already there, conspire to foul the IV drip to prevent Molly’s death, and to supply, instead, a revelatory dose of truth serum, transforming death into truth.

All of the elements — the family’s grim excitement, the strong women’s objections, and the husband’s leering affair with the still-passionate neighbor — end up as large, glass bottles to be smashed over the head of each audience member.

When the time comes and Molly begins to reveal memories she has repressed, the party turns ugly. As Molly remembers repressed abuse, the men in the room scuffle and murder her, preferring a dead woman to the truth.

But even the ugliness draws a laugh, and indeed the play is written to be a comic farce rather than the morbidly serious drama it could also be. Characters are cartoons and play out stereotypical roles well beyond the normal realm of absurdity, which results in audience members laughing their heads off as the death machine is erected on stage.

Dani and Caitlin stage a further redemptive moment for Molly, whom they have managed to save from herself, and even this bears an obvious message that Gage does not leave to the spectator’s brain, instead forcing the issue by delivering the message in dialogue.

The play is darkly funny and well-cast, with Rensenbrink exceeding all expectations of a loving but disoriented mother, Dauphinais acting her age to a T, and the stage-debuting Symonds doing very well but needing to deliver her lines without cracking a smile when she knows the audience will laugh.

The opening and closing scenes are the hardest parts to handle: the beginning seems very nearly not part of the play at all, and the final word is spoken so often that it becomes impossible not to remember, remember, remember, remember.

Written and directed by Carolyn Gage. With Megan Dauphinais, Sheila Jackson, Muriel Kenderdine, Jessica Porter, Liz Rensenbrink, and Vic Symonds. At Portland Stage Company’s Studio Theater, through March 16. Call (207) 774-0465.