backstage (2006-10)

The Darkness of Unknowing

WordPlayers’ production of A Traveler in the Dark

CRISIS OF FAITH: “What we think of as life is just God making material for a new book.”

by George Logan

A Traveler In the Dark is one of the lesser-known works of Pulitzer-winning playwright Marsha Norman. It’s being produced at the Black Box Theatre by one of Knoxville’s lesser-known theater troupes, WordPlayers. The play, first produced in Massachusetts in 1984, has lurked mostly under the radar since then; it involves four members of a torn family reckoning with faith, grief and doubt in the aftermath of an unexpected death.

As you might guess by the crucifix in their logo, WordPlayers is a Christian outfit. The troupe’s motto is “Acting For His Glory Since 1995,” and the actors’ principal sponsor is the Central Baptist Church of Bearden. It may be important to point out that fact, but it may be equally important to point out that to the viewer of this play, that fact is not particularly intimidating, or even discernible. The troupe has, after all, treated several dramas we think of as secular, from Our Town to The Fantasticks , and if there was any evangelism going on at the Black Box, it was of a subliminal sort. The Norman play is not evangelical in nature, and the troupe does not give it any more of a religious spin than the playwright did.

“This production is not recommended for children under the age of 13,” the program warns. The story concerns Sam, a cocksure surgeon who has just lost a patient—not just any patient, but his chief nurse and childhood companion. Sam and Mavis had been so close that the doctor’s wife had assumed they were having an affair. But he was unable to save her from a fatal cancer, which prompts in the doctor a crisis of faith: not in God, but in himself.

Sam is also a charismatic atheist who is determined to prevent his young son, Stephen, from being corrupted by his preacher grandfather.

Sam, played by Terry Weber, and his wife Glory, played by WordPlayers managing director Jeni Lamm, seem to be on the verge of a split, as their quiet but precocious son, Stephen, played by Paul Brandt, looks on. The parents argue about everything, and Sam’s stands are cerebrally cold and smug. “I’m so tired of your mind,” Glory says. “You would have been so much better off without it.”

Webb and Lamm are married offstage as well, but any chemistry they might have isn’t obvious; the script portrays marriage as among the weakest of human relationships. Despite her occasional wit, Glory’s not a strong character: disgruntled at the turn of events, she hardly protests when her husband announces his intention to take the boy. She talks vaguely of moving in with Mom. She seems to have lost the will to fight, and marriage seems only a legal technicality.

The fiery core of the play is in the titanic dialogues between Everett, the preacher, and his son Sam, each of them stormy and confident of their positions. The two are played by the cast’s resident pros. Weber, the troupe’s artistic director, is associate professor of theater at UT. A commanding actor, he plays Sam with a kind of fugitive swagger.

Bruce Borin plays Everett. A veteran of the pioneer cable-TV comedy I-40 Paradise , Borin is one of the most recognizable actors to Knoxville theatergoers. He’s played lots of roles over the years, but as a practitioner of the Falstaff / Santa Claus / Jehovah persona, he’s the best in town. (He evoked a version of that persona last in his memorable one-man show about Walt Whitman on this same stage last fall.)

Talking to his father, Sam ridicules some Bible stories, especially the admittedly odd one of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son. The doctor drips with sarcasm: “What we think of as life is just God making material for a new book.”

Other books of nursery rhymes lying around are quoted as if in juxtaposition. The play’s title comes from the little-known second verse of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” a sort of nursery apocrypha.

Eventually, Sam’s cockiness eventually yields to a sense of his own infallibility. His transformation leads him not to faith, but to an ambivalent open-mindedness that may at least render him easier to get along with.

The weak ending may be one reason the play isn’t one of Norman’s better known. One relationship resolves with forced suddenness, while the other has questions that remain unanswered.

After the show, actors in the troupe joined director Jenny Montgomery for a post-performance forum that most of last Saturday’s audience stayed for, an interesting discussion in which the dramatic subject was suddenly the audience: among them, a doctor’s daughter, a nursing student, an elderly survivor of the Mayo Clinic. There were no prayers, no testimonies, no exhortations of a higher power. It became clear that the purpose of the play was to raise questions, not provide handy answers for the ride home. The play was about, in Montgomery’s words, “the mystery of faith even while in the darkness of unknowing.”

What: WordPlayers’ production of A Traveler in the Dark , by Marsha Norman Where: Black Box Theatre, 5213 Homberg Drive When: March 9-11, 7:30 p.m; Sunday, March 12, at 2 p.m. How much: $12 for adults, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for groups of 10 or more.