Out on Indian Pass Road in the Florida Panhandle, there’s a pristine white sand beach that stretches for what seems like miles along the Gulf of Mexico. Just across the way, at the east end of the beach, is the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, which was once upon a time a private game preserve owned by a crackpot patent medicine tycoon from New York who stocked the place with zebras and other exotic animals. These days it’s home to a bunch of threatened and endangered species, including sea turtles, gopher tortoises, red wolves, and bald eagles. In the morning, dolphins sport in the surf, skimming in with the waves and rolling in the breakwater.
In mid-February, at least, the beach is almost always abandoned, no matter the time of day. Up and down Indian Pass Road — and all over the coast in either direction, as well as inland for at least 60 miles — there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of houses for sale, many of which are in foreclosure. Folks bought the land and then couldn’t afford to build, or started building and couldn’t afford to finish, or finished and then couldn’t make their payments.
They call this part of the Panhandle “Florida’s Forgotten Coast,” and at the moment that feels like a literal economic and geographic truth rather than a tourist slogan. It’s for damn sure an eerie and spectacular place — a place of incredible permutations of light, and of complete darkness— to try to think about theater, a subject I’ll readily admit I don’t spend much time thinking about, but which nonetheless seems somehow relevant in all the above contexts.
I’m not much of a theatergoer. That may be an understatement. I am, it’s entirely possible, even guilty of harboring the sorts of stereotypical views that theaters everywhere have to contend with in attracting audiences and benefactors. I won’t go so far as to claim that I was scarred by theater at an impressionable age, but I can say that my early experiences (high school theater and local Summer Stock productions in my hometown; an adolescent trip to New York where I was conscripted to see Cats and some other such over-stimulating Broadway fare) were not entirely positive, and I have a lifelong fear of captivity, cultural or otherwise (school, church, meetings, comedy clubs, and virtually any sit-down affair, from a family dinner to a concert).
I do, though, consider myself a cultural omnivore in most respects — I literally couldn’t live without books, music, movies, or visual art—but I have a serious blind spot when it comes to theater. I’m tempted to say that I’ve been shamed — what the hell, I’ll go ahead and say it: I have been shamed (by MinnesotaPlaylist Editor Alan Berks), which is not, though, necessarily a bad thing. Shame, as Bob Dole liked to remind us, is a powerful tool.
Oysters and other shellfish are the main economic engines of Gulf and Franklin Counties, and with the exception of a few clearly-struggling art galleries, culture has a broader, more hardscrabble meaning here in the Panhandle than it does in Minneapolis. In a guidebook I picked up at the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, I found listings for two community theaters. This season the Panhandle Community Theater in Milton is staging On Golden Pond and The Odd Couple, while the Pensacola Little Theater is mounting productions of Death of a Salesman, Cabaret, and Steel Magnolias. Milton is 181 miles from Apalachicola, the closest actual town to Indian Pass; Pensacola is 165 miles.
There is, though, certainly plenty of raw material for theater around here, just as there is in anyplace where culture with a small ‘c’ predominates. Hell, there’s surely plenty of drama, scads of first-rate characters, and a set that features equal parts squalor, picturesque ruins, lush tropical fauna, and bursts of Easter egg colors everywhere —on houses, boats, barbecue shacks, and the hand-painted signs that you encounter all along the roads and up and down the streets of every town.
There are also birds, seashells, and stars, and I wish to put those three disparate nouns, and the crazily disparate constellations of things each of them can signify, to work as tortured analogies for the professed topic of theater at hand:
The particular part of the Florida coast where I find myself is apparently celebrated as some sort of birdwatcher’s Eden. Even if there seem to be fewer bird watchers here than there were in Eden, even I —decidedly not a birdwatcher, a completely bird-indifferent fellow, in fact—cannot help but marvel at the sheer, stupefying diversity and beauty of the avian population on Indian Pass. Every day —no exaggeration—a minimum of several dozen different types of birds seem to make visits to the feeder and birdbath on the porch, and down on the beach I routinely encounter creatures (and I can only presume they are birds) that look like they’ve wobbled in from Jurassic Park. I have seen baroque, brightly-colored miniatures and glum pelicans and surf-skitterers of both the long and short-legged variety; I have seen all manner of scavengers and what in an act of absolute hubris I’m going to confidently call raptors. I have seen so many types of birds that it seems flat-out ridiculous that the ignorant among us have somehow agreed to call them all by the same name.
Yet we have, and I have: Birds. And though I have been dazzled by them daily, and have a keen appreciation for their beauty, grace, and, in some instances, ungainliness, I have nonetheless not felt compelled to drive into Apalachicola and purchase a field guide to the birds of the Florida coast.
I could say the same things about the shells I pick my way through on the beach every morning and night. Seashells? All of these things are seashells? It boggles my mind, and, once again, though I’m grateful for the existence of these mysterious objects tossed ceaselessly from the sea, and am capable of gazing on them with wonder, that’s as far as I can allow myself to go in terms of…what? Enlightenment? Passion? Obsession? I don’t know, but I feel confident my ignorance of seashells will remain with me to the end of my days. When I get back to the house from the beach I want to listen to music and read the piles of books I dragged with me down here (including, I should mention, a couple of plays; I read the damn things, I just seldom venture out to see them). I can’t allow birds or seashells in the door, because I’m a man who tends to get carried away.
Which brings me to stars. . .
I’ve never seen a more spectacular night sky than I’ve seen here on Indian Pass Road. Not in northern Minnesota. Not on an island in the North Sea off Norway. I love them, and they make my head hurt. Because I do know a bit about stars — even as I’ve had to force myself to forget most of what I once knew about stars, which used to be way, way too much. I was for a good long time obsessed with astronomy and could pick out the constellations in the sky during any season. I had star maps, field guides, books on the history of astronomy —everything but a telescope, which I put on my birthday and Christmas lists year after year to no avail, and which I’m convinced would have been —and would be—the death of my curiosity and the end of my days as an even minimally functioning social being.
Ok. I apologize. For rambling, and for a confessed indifference to theater, a subject, which from my admittedly limited experience, nonetheless still strikes me a bit like birds or seashells. I have this big, general idea about what theater is, and big, general ideas tend to scare me a bit. As I said, though, I do like plays and have read hundreds of them. I love Shakespeare but have seen only one production of Hamlet. I adore Samuel Beckett, stalked him in Paris, attended his funeral, and have never seen a single one of his plays produced. I like playwrights. I like actors. I love the idea of theater, and the genuine passion of the people I’ve known who work in what I recognize is a tenuous and often thankless business.
So, look, what it boils down to is that I’m ignorant. As, I suppose, are most of my other otherwise cultured, intelligent friends who don’t go to plays.
After being shamed, however, I’ve resolved to try to do better, and towards that end, I attended my first play (not counting a couple outings to see “The Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie, which I certainly do not count, and don’t wish to explain) in many years.
I saw Pure Confidence at Mixed Blood, a theater I’m pretty sure I’d never set foot in — I didn’t even know where the hell it was — and it was a good, positive, curious experience that gave me some small sense that I’d been missing out on something. I’d say the experience was painless if that didn’t sound so condescending; painlessness, though, is one of my chief expectations when I venture out to see anything where I’m compelled to sit still for any length of time.
The acting struck me as almost uniformly excellent, in that nobody — with one small exception — seemed to be acting, which is exactly the sort of ridiculous thing a theater agnostic would say, you might think, but I can assure you that that is exactly the sort of thing that theater agnostics say when they talk about theater. Gavin Lawrence as the legendary jockey Simon Cato was pitch perfect in a physically challenging role, and I loved watching him move. I recognized Chris Mulkey from Patti Rocks, and was somewhat surprised to see him acting on a local stage and thought he was terrifically entertaining.
The sets and costumes were also impressive to me, and I was grateful (for myself, as well as for Mixed Blood) that there was a packed house on a Sunday afternoon —that’s the painlessness thing; I’m miserable when there are only a handful of other people in attendance at anything. I feel like the pressure is ratcheted up ten-fold on everybody involved.
The play itself, written by Carlyle Brown, was a winning disappointment, I feel, a sort of good-Nazi tale set in the Civil War era South. The first act was so much infectious fun, and the writing, performances, and stagecraft was so cagey and lively that I was entirely captivated. The story involves a jockey/slave in the south prior to the Civil War. The man’s great skill with and knowledge of horses, coupled with his brash, outsized personality, allows him the sort of freedom —freedom to speak his mind, to make money, and to come and go as he pleases—that I have to assume was something of an anomaly at the time. (Unless I missed something; it’s never really explained to whom Cato really belongs, or why he’s allowed such liberties. I hope like hell the character wasn’t intended as some metaphor for…um, I don’t really know –maybe the human spirit?) His relationship with Mulkey’s Colonel Wiley Johnson and his wife Mattie (played by Karen Landry) is charming, funny, and warm, even as there’s something morally suspect or manipulative about it.
Unfortunately, the question of freedom — Who is free? What is freedom? What is bondage? Is it better to be a slave who gets to lip off and ride horses than a bellboy at a racist hotel up North? Weren’t a lot of slave owners actually really swell white guys just waiting for enlightenment? — gets a more overt, confusing, and ham-handed treatment in the second act, and it seemed to me that all the fun and energy got sucked out of both the play and the performances. To an extent, it ultimately felt like Brown had simply shrugged off the weight of the serious ideas and issues of his play and pulled out of his hat the sort of muddled feel-good/good-for-you ending that I deplore in books or movies too. It didn’t help matters that the play’s mixed messages finally strayed perilously close to the strange and not terribly inspiring idea that perhaps slavery wasn’t so bad after all.
I think it was Dorothy Parker who said that the question wasn’t whether a play was worth seeing, but whether it was worth going to see. Regarding Pure Confidence, I’m comfortable answering yes on both counts (with the necessary caveat that I didn’t pay for my ticket). Next time out, however, I’d like to see something a bit stranger, more adventurous, and perhaps even louder and messier. My suspicions are that the theater I’d really love would be the theatrical equivalent of free jazz or, at least, Bop.❦