There is one thing playwright Jeanmarie Williams and director Joseph Megel would like you to know. Vanishing Marion, the domestic drama that StreetSigns Center gives a world premiere Thursday night, is not a play about eating disorders. “No,” Williams says, flatly, at one point in our conversation last week. “The last thing I would want would be a talkback about anorexia after this play. That would completely miss the point.”
But wait. The title character is a bright, 17-year-old girl who makes a point of not eating during most of the production. Then there’s the title itself: Vanishing Marion. What gives?
“Not to be callous about a real disease,” Williams notes, “but often–and it isn’t just with anorexia, and it isn’t just with girls–we say, ‘Oh, that’s the problem,’ when we should be saying, ‘No, that’s the symptom.’ I don’t think we can ‘explain’ young women through this one thing. But as a culture, I think we do. Or try to.”
Megel concurs. “It’s not a ’cause’ play,” he says at the start of our conversation, later adding that “it’s about young women, class, culture and people not moving and food–all these things. Ultimately you can’t say it’s about any one of them.”
Vanishing Marion focuses on the title character’s transits back and forth between different worlds of privilege, pressure and preoccupation. Since she’s from a blue-collar, lower middle-class family, she feels out of place in the exclusive prep school she’s received a scholarship to attend. For the most part, her “friends” are more focused on their own achievements, status and budding low-grade neuroses.
Not that things are that much better on the home front. Her family kind of flew apart after the death of her father. Mother Rita works third shift and has become a sort of ghost in her children’s lives. Brother Brian’s just stopped trying in school. Older sister and designated doormat Leslie has just moved back in after latest boyfriend left her.
In both worlds, characters and relationships are defined more by how–or if–the people talk with one another. And in both places, Marion is not the only one taking things to an extreme. “When you’re dealing with characters in this age group and gender, I think a lot is said indirectly,” Williams says. “I think teenaged girls in particular are conditioned and are very adept at speaking indirectly–that what they’re saying is much less important than how they’re communicating, in relationships they are forming as they’re speaking.”
How will that dynamic play out with audiences accustomed to locking on to lines of dialogue to get at meaning? Megel mulls the question over. “[Jeanmarie] works in worlds of subtext that I feel most modern plays totally miss. The problem I have with a lot of contemporary playwrights is the dramaturgy of ‘making it clear.’ They are often encouraged to explain things, and make them more evident. I don’t think necessarily that’s what art’s purpose is.”
“If something is fuzzy and you lose the audience, perhaps some clarity is needed,” Megel adds. “But a lot of playwrights overexplain their points, as if the purpose of writing a play was to make a point, as opposed to create a piece of art. I think Jeanmarie knows how to write a character in a way that you understand the aches underneath the language without her having to say, ‘I’m aching,’ you know? Without having to be in your face about what’s going on. That gives the audience no journey, no place to dive in.”
The playwright agrees. “I think that new play development in general is a process that encourages writers to be clear. ‘Being clear’ is a really obtainable goal. But I’ve had a lot of my own plays completely derailed by being asked to make things clear. Being truthful is very different than being clear.”
The negative space increases when we realize that Vanishing Marion is not only about how teenage girls and troubled families don’t talk. It also concerns how people almost–but not quite–develop relationships with one another. “In this play, the people keep missing,” Williams says. “It’s not because they’re bad people. It’s because they don’t have the tools to connect with each other. They don’t know how. No one’s ever shown them how.”
“Marion almost connects with this person, that doesn’t work, she turns–there’s something about the structure of the play that has a lot to do with what the play’s about,” Williams says. “Something is missing. It’s ‘If we only had another minute, maybe we could have gotten somewhere in this relationship or negotiation.’ But too quickly people go away. That’s where Marion is in her life.” But perhaps it’s also where the playwright says we are in this culture. Increasingly, we don’t set up social structures that take us toward intimacy. They tend to sabotage it instead.
But can a play about two giant–and missing–things successfully communicate them to an audience? “It’s a gigantic challenge,” Megel admits. “There’s something so Chekhovian about Jeanmarie’s work. And how many times have we seen him totally mishandled: The comedy’s out, there’s no air in it. There’s a lot of misguided Chekhov out there, and yet he’s wonderful.”
“I think you constantly try to find truthful moments, and the breath and the rhythm of the play,” Megel continues. “That’s my sort of struggle. You try to get the actors to be in the world in such a way, and to fully engage.”
One potential problem there? These are characters who don’t fully engage, ever. They move toward engagement, but are repeatedly, almost systematically thwarted. “But the ache is there,” he counters, “and the people’s wants are gigantic. They’re there.”
What are the questions playwright and director want the audience left with at the end of the tale? “Not so much ‘Am I listening to my daughter?’” says Williams, “but ‘How do I listen? How can I listen? Is there more than one way to listen to someone?’” Megel thinks, and then adds, “How do we care for each other? How do we take care of each other?”
“How many ways are there to be a family?” Williams ponders. “How can we think about family? Am I actively engaged in creating my family–whatever that might be?”
Megel looks at Williams. “What makes it so dangerous to truly connect?” Williams replies, “Why is it so hard?”
Big questions all for a quartet of people who, even at the end of their ropes, still cannot quite reach one another. We’ll see how those questions are answered this weekend in Swain Hall.
E-mail Byron at firstname.lastname@example.org.