When I first read Jessie Dickey’s beautiful play, The Rembrandt, I was moved by its deft and enchanting contemplation of art and eternity, love and loss. Often a great play exists so inarguably in the world that its truth is undeniable and so, in a way, any encounter with the work is comforting and its message confirming. At that moment in my life, and frankly in the life of this theatre company, that gesture—one of gentle hopefulness—felt right and important and so we scheduled the play to open our season.
As a programmer of an arts institution in this particular moment, almost two years later, I am often asked to speak about the difference between a play’s meaning for us (and our audience) pre- and post-election. It seems to be the inescapable new frame for every conversation we have: do you look at this play/idea/person/moment in a new way since November 2016? I wouldn’t argue that this isn’t an important interrogation, nor would I argue I don’t engage the question often myself. But as we begin our 2017/18 season, Steppenwolf as a family is reeling from a series of losses that have sent many of us into a conversation that is, at least for the moment, more personal and more internal.
In the span of less than four months, we lost three ensemble members: Martha Lavey, Glenne Headley and Mariann Mayberry. These women were responsible for and a part of some of the most memorable work this company has ever done and will ever do. To lose even one of them is devastating. To be robbed of them all, so quickly and so close together is unspeakable. And I realized as I sat down to write about The Rembrandt that these losses have quite literally redrawn the landscape of my world. How does a story whose meaning was at one time abstract change when it becomes, suddenly and unbidden, simply your life?
In Jessie’s play, a series of people both connected and unconnected, famous and not, find themselves translating the challenges of life through their shared experience of art. Whether they are makers or observers doesn’t matter as they each understand in the other the need to engage questions in a language beyond the reach of their day-to-day life. I was lucky enough to be in exactly that dialogue with Martha, Glenne and Mariann many times over the years and I will treasure those memories for the rest of my life. To make theater with a person is to fall fully into the arms of their imagination and to be welcomed for all that you are. And though the productions themselves may disappear into memory, what that play brought you into contact with—whether that be a person or an idea—lives on forever in the memory of your mind, your body and your soul.
Every time that you choose to walk through our doors and witness us in this endeavor— every time you, like the characters in this play, choose the common language of a shared story, you join us in the circle that creates these eternal moments. And in this time of mourning, filled as they always are with both gratitude and regret, I want to say for all of us here at Steppenwolf, thank you. Thank you for joining us in this new season and for every season before. Thank you for seeing us. And we wish for you what we wish every day for ourselves: that we each get to continue to touch the art.
Anna D. Shapiro, Artistic Director