Although Open Window Theatre’s production is top-notch, there is no doubt that the script of The Potting Shed is a little aged. During his curtain speech, the company’s artistic director, Jeremy D. Stanbary, apologized to cat owners in the audience for the line, “People who love cats don’t know the meaning of the word.”
The line is about the agape variety of love and is an entirely valid reflection of Catholic theology. But that official position isn’t what many contemporary Americans—Catholics included, I wager—would put front-and-center when trying to convert people. This is the era par excellence of kitten pictures, after all, and it was just a few weeks ago that Pope Francis was quoted saying that pets go to heaven. Only to have the Vatican issue a clarification that, no, they don’t.
And it was the cat joke (and Stanbary’s disclaimer) that got me thinking.
If you lived back then
Let me back up a little. I do not mean that the script, its ideas or its language is old-fashioned. I mean that the ideas central to the play are prone to be badly misinterpreted by Americans who are watching the show in 2015. The Potting Shed was first performed on Broadway in 1957. The North Atlantic allies were in an existential struggle against the Soviet bloc. Sputnik and Little Rock were just around the corner. Demands in Africa and Asia decolonization were picking up political steam and many emerging countries were looking toward Moscow and Beijing instead of Washington and London—even while China was itself unnervingly volatile and no one outside the Politburo was at all certain what was actually happening in eastern Europe. The Soviets and Americans were making horrible advances in thermonuclear technology, and the possibility of an exquisitely efficient, scientific warfare inspired billions of nightmares.
It is difficult to exaggerate how tense the world was.
A large part of how Western cultures dealt with that tension was to support conservative national identities. Solidarity quickly became compulsory. We’re familiar with the era’s explosions in the birth rate, suburbs, highways and consumerism. We tend to forget that part of the cultural reaction to the Cold War was a transformation of the role religion played in republican life.
Communism officially demanded atheism and brutally suppressed most religious clergy and congregations. In response, the West moved in the opposite direction. If the Reds were atheists, we would be religious. Any religion was good because religion, in general, became a sign of civilization and freedom. From a purely civic point of view—and this is important—the content of the religion was immaterial. Religion is itself redeeming. Teachings are, from the anticommunist standpoint, entirely interchangeable. Until quite recently, that has been Americans’ view toward the civic place of religion: it is always benevolent, it is always civilized, and it never (no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary) is or has been the cause of trouble.
The Potting Shed takes place in this world. This is why one of the characters even says, “Christianity is all the fashion now.”
The Callifer family has gathered to bury its patriarch, a scientist and scholar. Much to the other characters’ various degrees of dismay, this includes son James (played by Jeremy D. Stanbary), a fortysomething newspaperman. James cannot, despite a whole lot of drugs administered by a psychoanalyst, remember anything before age 14.
(For a moment, imagine meeting someone in his 40s who couldn’t remember anything before he was put on a train to boarding school by his parents. This is the sort of set-up that, had it been incorporated into a script published after 1980, would have ended with considerably more uncomfortable revelations than we get in The Potting Shed.)
At any rate, James is inspired to unearth the reason why he can’t remember anything from his childhood. There are clues—even apart from the trauma-erased memory—that give James hints about what happened. His anxiety levels go haywire when he’s near the family’s potting shed. He mentions a particular toy during a therapy session. And so on.
Without giving too much away, the Horrible Thing That Happened was—in the view of James, one of the family’s servants and James’s priest-uncle (played with a charming, benign drunkenness by Dann Peterson)—a miracle. The rest of the family is adamant about never discussing this ever, ever, ever, not in a million years, cross our hearts and hope to die, because the recognition of this miracle poses an intolerable threat to their very happy lives as important professional atheists.
In this respect, the unwavering certainty of the scientist types is probably the most genuinely old-fashioned aspect of the script. It is, after all, today’s custom for scientists to qualify statements. James’s mother—played with the right balance of imperviousness and shame by the show’s MVP, Meri Golden—so zealously defends her husband’s professional work that her son’s therapist must beg her for information he feels might save her son’s life. It made me want to scream, “Good grief, lady! Real scientists admit when they’ve been wrong—just help the little German dude do his job!”
I cannot say with certainty what the religious purpose of the script is. But that is what makes it art and not proselytizing; that there are many different interpretations possible means it is a sincere attempt at faith rather than picking a side in a religious fight. In James, The Potting Shed offers a portrait of a man who is discovering his innate capacity for faith. And that is certainly story enough to enjoy the show. But there is a complex discussion playwright Graham Greene is having with himself about the nature of faith and God’s grace—a conversation that Open Window fully embraces with its staging and under Stephen O’Toole’s direction. This is an examination of the nebulous nature of faith. It must be tempting to shoehorn that nebulousness into certainty. That no one does is something worthy of recognition.
On the other hand, there is that unambiguous message that faith is unquestionably a net good and there isn’t much discussion about how James’s faith will manifest itself. And that does feel out-of-place in an otherwise delicate approach to religion. But, hey, that’s just kinda how things were in the late ’50s.
As a family drama, Open Window’s production succeeds. In addition to excellent performances by Peterson and Golden, Ali Daniels plays James’s niece. While the character is tasked by the script to provide comic relief—often coming from her habit, rare in this family, of straightforwardly giving people information rather than fretting about the consequences—Daniels gives it a nice precocious spin. That James becomes so fond of her is easy to understand.
• Points for saying “zed” instead of “zee” for the last letter of the alphabet.
• Artistic director Jeremy D. Stanbary announced at the end of the show that Open Window Theatre is expanding in a big way. Right now, they’re at 4,500 square feet with their performance space and office—and they’ll be adding another 3,000 square feet soon. So congratulations are certainly in order. Hooray!
• With all the talk of a trauma in a potting shed and with all the English accents, I couldn’t help but hear the line from Cold Comfort Farm in my head: “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”