Friday, January 16, 2004

Look up: And see what's going on in the air around you

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Victims of domestic violence are in your neighborhood, possibly even next door. We picture them in urban settings, poorer families, where alcohol or drugs are problems. And the victims are there. But they are also in more affluent communities, suburban neighborhoods.

Why do we have the picture we do? Because "the majority of times the cops show up, it’s not the wife who calls," says Michael Cruz, a USM sociology professor who studies domestic violence. Someone else overhears the altercation, and calls for help. Suburbanites buy "peace and quiet." If they’re abusers, they also buy privacy — nobody to overhear the screams, the crashing furniture.

Let’s think about a few numbers — just briefly, I promise. According to people who know these things, 60,000 women in Maine are victims of domestic violence. That’s one in 10 women.

Pictured another way, if you’re in a supermarket line on an average evening, picking up a few things before heading home, you would hear between three and five voices pipe up if you called out, "anyone here been abused at home?" That’s if you had the courage to ask and they had the courage to answer, of course.

Mostly likely, though, you wouldn’t hear a sound. Like Elysia (Tara Smith) in Sean Demers’s new play Dreams of Elysia, victims are scared to speak up. And it’s our fault — yours and mine.

After a recent performance of the play, a group of panelists held a discussion with the cast and audience about domestic violence. On the panel were several local experts in studying the problem or helping victims. In the cast, at least one abuse victim (he openly discussed it). In the audience sat another, near tears as she described her upper-middle-class upbringing, learning only later in life that she and her mother and her siblings had all been abused. She asked the experts why her mother wouldn’t leave.

The most revealing answer was not their explanation, saying it’s often the abuser’s brain-washing, telling her no one will believe her. It wasn’t even the play’s beautiful illustration that love is present in abusive relationships, tying victims’ hearts to their tormentors, giving them hope that things will change, as all lovers dream of Elysium.

The best answer came from Michael T. Toth, who played James, the gone-but-not-at-all-forgotten domestic abuser in the play: Society tells women it’s disgraceful to be in an abusive relationship. We say, tacitly or even directly, "You should be strong enough to walk away."

Battered in body and spirit, these women are not as strong as we righteously demand. Most of us don’t say to them, "I will help you be strong enough to walk away." Instead, when they start to come clean to the world about the nightmare they live in private, we blame them into further silence.

No wonder nobody in the supermarket answers your call. They’re all expecting you to abuse them further. "You knew it would happen again," you’ll point out, unwilling to listen to their explanation that maybe they did, you’re right, but they also hoped it wouldn’t. They hoped the magic moments would return, when he was happy and loving and kind, like it used to be, like it still sometimes is.

Demers, a young playwright finishing a theater degree at USM, expanded the play from a one-act. "When I first wrote the play, [domestic violence] was kind of this subtext," he says. During revision, "it became clear that domestic abuse was more than just a subtext. It was the driving force."

Elysia’s relationship with James is over, but not gone. ("Battered women are always looking over their shoulder," says a crisis counselor.) And in fact, there he is, on the stage, as Elysia tries to break free, seeking a new life, rebirth.

When they fall in love, she learns, two people surrender control to each other. "The control is just waiting around to be picked up," a character says. Sometimes one of the pair picks up too much, and is able to use love as a weapon. This is abuse.

Elysia re-establishes an old friendship, tries to avoid the helping feelers from society, in the form of a condescending, superior nurse (Marita Kennedy-Castro) who offers a way out.

But she stays in the apartment she shared with James for eight years, its battered furniture, askew doors, and picture frames silent witnesses to the maelstrom. And she visits him in the hospital, where she reprises her weak, supplicant role, even as he lies unconscious, unable to move or speak.

Elysia tells Anna (Erika Silverman) a little bit about her abuse, but like the others in the supermarket lines, is silent when questioned directly. Even when she meets Isidore (his nickname is better: "Izzy," or "Is he?"), she is subdued. Demers’s dialogue gets at the root of the issue, probing and stretching to show the audience how far Elysia will go to avoid truth.

Perhaps the best review of the play came from a member of the audience, who talked about her concern over the issue, but her wariness of being forced to look too closely before she is ready. This play, she said, allows communication and connection between audience members and victims — allows people to see into that world — without being uncomfortable.

"I would like a lot of people to see this," she said.

Dreams of Elysia
Written and directed by Sean Demers. With Tara Smith, Caleb Wilson, and Michael T. Toth. Two Lights Theatre Ensemble, at the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through January 17. Call (207) 839-9819.


• On the night of January 16, the youth theater ensemble at the Schoolhouse Arts Center at Sebago Lake, will perform Ayn Rand’s Night of January 16th, a courtroom drama in which the audience plays the role of the jury. Call (207) 642-3743 for tickets to the performance, by young actors, aged 10 to 20. (It will also be performed the night of January 17.)

• The Schoolhouse folks are also looking for actors who want to be in a new group of daytime actors, to rehearse and perform during the day for senior and community groups. All are welcome, "if you are old enough to vote and have a sense of humor." If you’re up for it — and can be awake in time for 10 a.m. rehearsals, call Gayle Clarke at (207) 892-4461.