Two plays currently running in Chicago demonstrate how an encounter with someone can change the trajectory of lives. René Girard defines this shifting nature of human beings as interdividuality. More about that later. Now, on with the shows! (Spoilers to follow.)
In the Goodman Theatre’s Support Group for Men, four men gather in Wrigleyville, a neighborhood surrounding the Chicago Cubs’ Wrigley Field rife with bars and brawls, to share their concerns and feelings. Brian (Ryan Kitley) hosts the group every Thursday night and acts as the relational hub. The oldest worker at the Apple Store, he crows how he looks younger than he is and has a wonderful relationship with a much younger woman, Amber. Brian’s black high school friend Delano (Anthony Irons) lives in Oak Park, a liberal integrated suburb of Chicago, and frets over the emotional vacillations of his wife. Kevin (Tommy Rivera-Vega), a recent addition and youngest member of the group, works with Brian at the Apple Store, enjoys belonging to the group and inserts informational bits incessantly. Roger (Keith Kupferer), a fifty-plus blue collar worker who played on Brian’s softball team, expresses anger, annoyance, and confusion at this new world of #MeToo, endless technology, and preferred gender pronouns.
Their circle ritual, rife with Native American cultural appropriation and anachronisms (their talking stick is a decorated baseball bat), hilariously chips away at notions of masculinity and sexual identity. An altercation in the street below introduces an androgynous stranger, Alex (Jeff Kurysz), to the foursome shifting their worldview, resulting in both dislocation and freedom.
Written by Ellen Fairey and directed by Kimberly Senior, the play enjoyed a developmental production during the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival in 2017 before premiering at the Goodman in June 2018. In an interview with dramaturg Isaac Gomez, the playwright describes her work, “The play, at its core, is about a group of men attempting – not necessarily succeeding – to be open about who they are, what they’re afraid of, and how they might learn to move forward in a world that is moving forward without them.” During the post-show discussion on the last night of previews, Fairey explained the last scene of a play is the first scene of the next one. Be sure to catch that show, too.
Steppenwolf Theatre’s Chicago premiere of The Roommate, written by Jen Silverman and directed by star of stage, screen, and television, Phylicia Rashad, opens on Sharon (Sandra Marquez), a house dress attired home owner in Iowa City, suffering from “Invisible Women Syndrome”. “Retired” from her marriage and distanced, physically and emotionally, from her clothing designer (but not gay) son, Sharon advertised for a roommate. Elegantly attired roommate Robyn (Ora Jones) arrives from the Bronx to Sharon’s excitement and bewilderment. Robyn, reluctant to answer Sharon’s questions and resistant to claims of friendship, states she is there to start over. Sharon’s curiosity leads her to open a box of Robyn’s marked clothing where she discovers clues to Robyn’s disreputable past. Sharon confronts Robyn, demanding to be trained in Robyn’s scams and schemes. Robyn reluctantly agrees and an illicit partnership and emotional relationship are formed. A quick study, Sharon exults in this freedom from ethical standards and eagerly pursues actions that honor, horrify, and ultimately repel Robyn.
Steppenwolf’s Artistic Director, Anna D. Shapiro explains, “Silverman’s great gift is to dignify these two women, so frequently overlooked or cast aside, as individuals whose desires and struggles are important and necessary and uniquely their own.” If the last scene of a play is the first scene of the next play, as playwright Ellen Fairey stated, then the sequel to The Roommate might be A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, if any of Sharon’s family members actually appeared.
The concept underpinning both plays is how other people can change us – for better or worse. Expressed in aphorisms like “birds of a feather flock together”, René Girard’s mimetic theory offers a different perspective stating similarly oriented humans are not merely drawn together, but molded into a similar pattern through imitation of others in the group. This documented malleability should shift the dearly held Western belief in individuality to an embrace of man’s interdividuality.
Mankind’s imitative nature was confirmed with the discovery of mirror neurons. As UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni explained to Scientific American, “The way mirror neurons likely let us understand others is by providing some kind of inner imitation of the actions of other people, which in turn leads us to ‘simulate’ the intentions and emotions associated with those actions.”
The men of Support Group for Men unexpectedly received the connection, understanding, and camaraderie they sought. Their forced listening (only the person holding the talking stick can speak) gave them a new understanding of the intentions and emotions of others. With this new skill, each man moved forward knowing they could always return to the Thursday night meeting when they needed support.
While simulating the felonious intentions of The Roommate’s Robyn, Sharon emotionally disconnects from the community she was a part of, viewing them as targets to be conned or customers to be sold. Sharon’s transformation offers Robyn an opportunity to experience the cost of her actions. Does this insight allow her to truly “start over” in a new place? Perhaps what she leaves behind hints this might be the case.
Both plays demonstrate humanity’s imitative nature, offering the audience a chance to reflect on who they are imitating. If they dare.
Image: Playbill covers from the Goodman Theatre (left) and Steppenwolf Theatre (right)