|Tina Chilip & Zachary Booth in "after all the terrible things I do"|
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The title of Huntington Theatre Company's final production of this season, the New England premiere of “after all the terrible things I do”, might initially remind one of the literary efforts of archy and mehitabel (by e. e. cummings), but it's actually a reference to a work by gay poet (and Harvard grad) Frank O'Hara. His poem (entitled “Poem”) says: ”after all the terrible things I do, how amazing it is to find forgiveness and love”. Written by A. Rey Pamatmat, the play is the story of David (Zachary Booth) a recent college graduate who returns to his hometown and accepts a job at a store named “Books to the Sky” (described in the program as “an independent bookstore before and after business hours, in an average-sized, unremarkable Midwestern town”). It's run by a Filipino-American woman named Linda (Tina Chilip). While David is a young gay author of fiction struggling to find his voice, Linda is repressing some secrets about her own family. While things start out well, there's a moment when obvious friction threatens to upend their budding relationship. Each has stories to share about bullying and cruelty in their community, and the narratives are not what you'd expect.
The bullying is in large part related to the concept of “American exceptionalism”. Our society encourages and rewards winners in competition who defeat others, proving that the losers are not the best they could be, and never will be. They share a catharsis that the author has stated reminds him of authentic yoga where one strives to reach the ultimate goal of peace and balance, connecting with one's core self amid the disappointments and distractions of the external world. There's typically a moment in his plays, he also has commented, when a character reaches a catharsis that's essentially a shared experience between people of differing perspectives, based on the character's self-realization that there are worldly illusions to which one shouldn't attach. In about a hundred intermission-less minutes, the playwright explores finding that aforementioned forgiveness and love, as well as second chances, in an environment that's not as cozy and comfortable as it first appears. By the time some withheld secrets are revealed, the work asks whether there exist any truly unforgivable acts, and if there's any hope for the people who perform them.
As with any brief two-hander, this play is almost by definition dialogue-heavy. It's to the credit of Director Peter Dubois, the company's Artistic Director, that the interchange between these characters goes so smoothly and swiftly. Both Booth and Chilip are mesmerizing, individually and together. Their dialogue feels natural even when it threatens to become a bit purple, given that both are presented as unusually literate and articulate. The technical aspects of the production are stunning, from the Scenic and Costume Design by Clint Ramos (a beautifully complex set as opposed to his recent simple design for Trinity Rep's “Melancholy Play”), to the striking Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, to the effective Sound Design by M. L. Dogg.
And what about those issues of forgiveness and hope? Pamatmat wisely raises questions without providing pat resolutions. His writing is often both compelling and beautiful, leaving the audience to experience not only some unexpected directions but also some open-ended decisions. It's rare these days to find a new work as engrossing as this, with such perceptive thought and expression. The term “riveting” may be an over-utilized word, but it's an accurate description of this playwright's work, which challenges our sometimes simplistic assumptions about the scourge of bullying. By the end of this play, audiences should find themselves with a view that's more intricate and nuanced, as the characters take inventory not just with respect to the items for sale, but take stock of themselves as well. “Books to the Sky” indeed.