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Uplifting Isn't His Style: Bruce Norris at Steppenwolf

2004-2005, Volume 5
by Artistic Apprentice Margot Bordelon

“If you want some sort of climax, some moment in which great truths are spoken, well, check your ticket stubs because you have come to the wrong performance,” proclaims Judge Garvey, the fallen man at the center of Bruce Norris’s The Infidel. But it wasn’t necessary for him to speak the truth behind what motivated his heinous crimes, because Norris had already implied it by showing the audience the gradual psychological breakdown of his main character. When The Infidel premiered at Steppenwolf Theatre in March of 2000, it received rave reviews. Richard Christiansen of the Chicago Tribune called it “a play that manages to be, all at once, a smart, clever, thoughtful and provocative work of theater,” focusing on Norris’s masterful unraveling of information. In all of his plays, Norris feeds the audience just enough clues about his characters and their circumstances to leave us hungry for more.

Born in 1960, Norris graduated from Northwestern in 1982 with a degree in theater and set out to be an actor. He worked on shows such as Master Harold…and the boys at Victory Gardens Theater, Black Snow at the Goodman and Closer at Steppenwolf. In New York he was seen on Broadway in Biloxi Blues, in many Off-Broadway productions, and in his words, was “hired and fired from a number of television pilots.” It was these experiences that inspired him to write his first play, The Actor Retires, a venture that would change his role in American theater from working actor to respected playwright.

As an artist who has a significant acting career, Norris possesses an innate understanding of theatrical discourse. One need only look at how he peppers his plays with philosophical meditations on the asinine. In The Infidel, Garvey analyzes the television program Green Acres: “Here we have this man, this nearly tragic figure of Oliver Douglas, this man imprisoned not by walls, for he could leave the community of…Hooterville…at any moment, but rather trapped by his refusal to surrender his bucolic vision, his faith in the land itself…even though he is confronted time and again with reality.” These ruminations are insightful beacuase they’re funny and reflective of the way contemporary people communicate with each other, and are also very rich in subtext. What’s more perplexing than realizing you relate your entire way of living to that of a sitcom character? Humor in Norris’s plays serves dual purposes – it gives the audience the opportunity to experience a cathartic moment of laughter, only to realize that the object of their laughter is, in fact, tragic.

Based on the strength of The Infidel, Steppenwolf commissioned Norris to write a new play called Purple Heart. It was the story of Carla, a young alcoholic widow, who loses her husband near the end of the Vietnam War. As her ability to communicate with her 13-year-old son, Thor, and her aging mother-in-law, Grace, quickly deteriorates, a stranger arrives: a man in uniform with a prosthetic hand. But he is no stranger. He and Carla have met before, three months earlier in a Veteran’s hospital where he was recovering from his injury and she was being treated in the psychiatric ward – suicidal after her husband’s death. Overcome by her beauty and the extremity of his situation, he rapes her while she is drugged, and, though she has no recollection of the incident, she is in fact pregnant with his child – which she then miscarries. This is painfully difficult material revealed with finesse. The emotional intensity of this revelation is matched by the dramatic chaos raging onstage at the same moment –a taxi cab honking its horn outside, Grace’s hearing aid beeping in a high-pitched shriek, Thor’s decision to display his homemade flame thrower. Norris’s sense of rhythm is impeccable, as the truth is exposed through implication, overwhelmed by the ensuing onstage anarchy.

We All Went Down to Amsterdam explores the dangerous relationships between the people living and working in a home for the elderly. One patron, after attending the show, gave Norris some unsolicited advice, declaring “You know I saw your play and it was funny, but it was so depressing and next time I just have one rule for you, I want it to be uplifting.” But “uplifting” isn’t Norris’s style. “I feel like there are people who want plays, like movies and TV, to tell them things they already know and to confirm the beliefs about themselves they already have. I find that kind of creepy.” Norris’s work is deeply ironic with a razor sharp edge – one of the reasons that Steppenwolf and Norris are such a compatible match. “Bruce’s plays have a strong political and social sensibility to them and at the same time, they are very darkly funny,” says Edward Sobel, Steppenwolf’s Director of New Play Development and Dramaturg for Purple Heart and The Pain and the Itch.

With each new play, Norris’s writing has gotten increasingly more sophisticated, and as Sobel states “he has continued to explore how best to detonate important information during the course of the story to yield the greatest dramatic payoff.” It’s difficult to peg Norris’s plays into one genre. They could be described as black comedy, social satire or just simply, family dramas. What is clear, however, is that he creates great roles for actors, writes propellant-quick dialogue and tackles complex material with a unique comic dexterity. They may not ever be “uplifting,” but they’re guaranteed to be hilarious and provocative.

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