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Ghost Stories: The Shawl & Prairie du Chien
By Charles Wright
The 30-year-old Atlantic is to Mamet what Bayreuth is to Richard Wagner or the Abbey Theatre to Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory. Mamet, the most distinctive voice of his generation of American dramatists, was a co-founder of the Atlantic (as was Zigler) and remains a member of its company. If there's any place one expects to see definitive interpretations of Mamet' s plays, that should be the Atlantic.
Prairie du Chien began as a radio play in 1979. The Shawl premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in 1985 and at Lincoln Center Theater later that year. Both contain the kind of dialogue one anticipates in Mamet's early work: it's elliptical, often cryptic, sometimes fragmentary, trailing off in vague phrases or into silence. .
Prairie du Chien takes place in the middle of a night in 1910, on a train rumbling westward through Wisconsin. Two travelers (Nate Dendy and Jim Frangione) play cards. A well-heeled salesman (Jordan Lage) regales another traveler (Jason Ritter) with a story about a jealous husband murdering his wife. The listening passenger's son (Henry Kelemen) sleeps; a porter (Dereks Thomas) passes in and out with drinks and food.
In The Shawl a middle-aged woman, Miss A (Mary McCann), visits an ostensible clairvoyant, John (Arliss Howard), in hopes of contacting her recently deceased mother and determining whether to contest the mother's will. John is of two minds about deceiving Miss A but is pressed by his younger love interest (Jason Ritter) to string her along in hopes of bilking her of money from her mother's estate.
These plays will appeal to anyone curious about the playwrights range, but they lack the power and dramatic drive of his most popular works, such as American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Oleanna. Despite the collective title, Ghost Stories, neither play depicts apparitions (though the salesman's tall tale in Prairie du Chien involves the spirit of a murder victim communicating with her survivors and, in The Shawl, John pretends to channel a couple of dead people during a séance). In both, characters puzzle over outlandish claims about psychic phenomena, though the plays end without their conclusions being clear.
The performances in Ghost Stories are as stellar as one might hope to find at this Vatican of Mametology. In Prairie du Chien, the tension between Dendy as a card sharp and Frangione as his mark builds, ebbs, and builds again to an explosion of violence that jangles playgoers' nerves as effectively as the climax of a Hitchcock film or a short story by Poe. Of special note in this curtain-raiser is the brief, convincing turn by 11-year-old Kelemen, startled from slumber by the card players' confrontation and the ensuing fracas.
In The Shawl, Howard and Ritter offer intricate characterizations of a couple, years apart in age, whose backstory is never clear in the text and whose connection is decidedly mysterious. The detailed nature of their intriguing performances is a striking contrast to McCann. Like Lindsay Crouse in the 1985 Lincoln Center Theater production of The Shawl (and also in Mamet' s film House of Cards), McCann makes Miss A slow-moving and lugubrious.
Crouse was married to Mamet when she played Miss A. It' s of considerable interest that McCann gives a performance in The Shawl that's comparably wooden and unbending to Crouse' s Mamet interpretations on both stage and film. What's unclear is whether this aspect signals Miss A's hazy-headedness or a tactic by which she gains and maintains control of her relations with the flimflamming duo. As the dramatist leaves a great deal up in the air when he brings down the curtain, it's impossible to know what the curious wooden quality of the Mamet female means. That's a topic, perhaps, for future doctoral dissertations.
For more about David Mamet, is career, plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see our Mamet Backgrounder
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