By Venus Zarris
Whether presented in a darkened basement with only two chairs as a set, as in An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by John Faustus on This His Final Evening, or adapted to the opulence of Rockefeller Chapel and told through the spectacle puppet pageantry of Redmoon Theatre’s incomparable innovations, as in Hunchback; there is a singular emotional and intellectual grandeur to playwright Mickle Maher’s writing that is unsurpassed. It is frightening writing that reveals our raw and vulnerable self-delusions. It is hysterical writing that finds humor at its tragic depth and surfaces it with whimsical playfulness. It is restorative writing that finds the light of redemption after expressing the darkness of our thoughtless foibles, complex self-sabotage and existential floundering. It is quite simply and quite profoundly writing that you are not only listening to, but more so that you are in the presence of.
Once again less is more in Theater Oobleck’s production of Maher’s latest offering. There Is A Happiness That Morning Is strips the visual setting down to two podiums and a chalkboard. It also strips three characters down to the naked truths of their lives. Maher grounds his story in two poems by William Blake and employs the meter and rhyming of Blake’s poetry throughout the oration and conversation of the characters. This might seem to be a gimmick and in the hands of a lesser writer it would be a devise that is clever at first but one that we quickly tire of. Instead, Maher frees us of the containments of social restriction and conventional dialogue by articulating the base carnal joy of sex and the isolation of lost passion through verse that is brilliant, beguiling, completely accessible and absolutely entertaining.
On the morning after an episode of public sex performed by two seasoned professors on the grounds of a college campus, we sit in on a poetry lecture by one of the teachers in question. Bernard enters the “classroom” barefoot and dirt-covered from his night in the woods. He is unapologetic about the nocturnal scandal and euphoric as he begins his lecture on Blake’s poem Infant Joy. “I happy am, Joy is my name, Sweet joy befall thee!” He recites as his post-sex afterglow personifies the unbridled joy of the poem. He feels emancipated.
Shortly thereafter we are in the classroom of Ellen, the second of the lovers in question. She opens with an apology but not for the transgression of a public intimate interlude, rather for years of conformity to an academic institution that she finds stifling and unjust. “O Rose, though art sick! The invisible worm” She recites from Blake’s poem The Sick Rose.
As the story unfolds we meet the college president, antagonist of this erotic exchange and the very present threat to these educator’s careers. He “Has found out thy bed Of crimson joy; And his dark secret love Does they life destroy.”
Genius writing requires genius acting and this spellbinding ensemble realizes the peculiar reality of the story with fascinating and riveting effect. Colm O’Reilly brings an endearing childlike enthusiasm to Bernard that envelops the audience and draws us in with fervently rationalized emotional elation. Bernard could be easily over played but O’Reilly inhabits this character to subtle perfection. Diana Slickman’s Ellen contrasts Bernard with ardent indignation that is both commanding and hysterical. Kirk Anderson’s delivery of James explodes with raw and unexpected vulnerability. Ultimately the story belongs to Ellen though, as she is the most conflicted and revelatory of the characters and Slickman’s performance of her realizations and transformations are devastating and beautiful.
Blake’s poems Infant Joy and The Sick Rose are both relatively brief yet Maher extracts from them not only their meanings, but also a preposterously delightful and startlingly heartbreaking story. There Is A Happiness That Morning Is is a theatrical masterpiece born of two literary classics. It is the love child of a living writer’s intellectual intercourse with a writer long since dead; thus illustrating once again how Mickle Maher’s composition is the type of art that can breach the time-space continuum and emerge as a timeless incarnation floating within the parameters of a script.
In an era where a love letter consists of “I want 2 C U 2 nite, K?”, Maher restores reverence to writing and illuminates the beauty of language by composing a breathtaking love sonnet (via a staged story) to thought, existence, love, loss, poetry, theater, acting and most of all to humanity itself. “We read poems so we can repeat them … We collect lines of poetry to flow out of life … We read and repeat poetry with a childlike wish we might become them.” Maher’s childlike wish has come true.
If you have never seen Maher’s work, this is a perfect introductory class. If you are already a fan, There Is A Happiness That Morning Is is a refresher course reminder of his staggering talent. Regardless of your grade level, this is a production of writing and acting at its finest and one of the year’s most extraordinary offerings that you cannot afford to miss. (* Tickets are “Pay What You Can”)
(“There Is A Happiness That Morning Is” runs through May 22 at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph Street. 312-742-8497)
There Is A Happiness That Morning Is production photos by John W. Sisson Jr.
* Visit Theatre In Chicago for more information on this show. There Is a Happiness That Morning Is – Storefront Theater – Play Detail – Theatre In Chicago