News & Articles

The Pain and the Itch - Artistic Director Martha Lavey's Preview

by Martha Lavey

The Pain and the Itch is the fourth play by Bruce Norris that we have produced at Steppenwolf. Two of those plays – The Infidel and We All Went Down to Amsterdam – were produced in our Upstairs Theatre. Purple Heart, presented two seasons ago in our Downstairs Theatre, was moved to the Galway Arts Festival following its run at Steppenwolf. We are enormously proud that Bruce Norris has chosen Steppenwolf as his artistic home. It has given us the opportunity to foster a sustained dialogue between our audience and a writer deeply and skillfully engaged in an inquiry into the nature and fabric of American life. One of the great pleasures of Bruce’s work is how easily the plays go down as domestic dramas. All four of Bruce’s plays that we have produced take place in a single environment – to all appearances, the drama of the play is confined to the room in which it is contained. The characters and their relationships with each other are rich, complex and psychologically motivated. The outcome of events is registered by each of the characters – the logic of the plays is complete. It is thrilling, given how successfully the plays work at an interpersonal level, to open one’s ears to their political and cultural resonance. Purple Heart was a moving, funny and disturbing insight into the dynamics of one particular family, set in the bland confines of a suburban home in early 1970s America. It was also a stinging portrait of Vietnam-era America: a country at war with itself, in deep pain and neglectful of its legacy. Likewise, The Pain and the Itch provides a familiar landscape: a middle-class family (their precise socioeconomic status a matter of dispute within the play) in a single-family home in present-day New York. A young couple, Kelly and Clay, have two children and are hosting Clay’s family for Thanksgiving dinner. In a nod to the contemporary landscape of shifting gender roles, Kelly, wife and mother, is the principal breadwinner. Her husband, Clay, is the stay-at-home childcare provider. The presence of Clay’s family – his mother, Carol, and his brother, Cash, accompanied by his young girlfriend, Kalina – provides the template against which Clay has designed his current life. Carol and Cash occupy a more traditional distribution of gender roles and define the patriarchal structure against which Clay has re-made himself. Clay’s is an uneasy self-invention: he is quick to claim his competency as a father and defensive about his wife’s implied (and explicit) criticism of his caretaking. It is important to Clay that parenting be recognized as a job – a hard job – and, finally, the most important and serious job of all. Anything that threatens the absolute seriousness and sanctity in which family is held is subject to attack. It is important to observe that Clay’s and Kelly’s extreme protectiveness of family as a social institution and as a generator of values (and value) is confined to the immediate, nuclear family. Clay’s protectiveness of his own home, his own children, produces a series of attacks on: his mother, his now-dead father, his brother and his brother’s girlfriend, and finally, the family of the housekeeper who occupies his home. Bruce is drawing here a portrait of a contemporary American lifestyle that is defined by an isolation from (and rebellion against) the family of origin, that is responsible to its own progress and prosperity (even if at the expense of its larger community). Just as gender roles, and their social revision in contemporary America, are instrumental in the dynamics of the play, race and cultural identity figure heavily into the equation of outcomes. This is a white family, issued up as the normative American experience. The presence of immigrants – Kalina, of Eastern European extraction, and Mr. Hadid, a North African – produces another templateå of dissonance. Kalina and Mr. Hadid are others. Both characters figure naturally and centrally in Clay and Kelly’s life and family but their actions, their points of view, their experiences and needs are threatening to, because different from, Clay and Kelly’s nuclear family. Kalina and Mr. Hadid express points of view and needs that conflict with, and threaten, the intact circle of Clay and Kelly’s life. At one point in the play, Clay declares, “Basically, we’re about the family,” to which Mr. Hadid replies, “Your family.” Clay demurs and, fumbling, insists, “There is an intrinsic value, right to…? Look. Parents and children…” To which, Mr. Hadid replies, “Your children.” What Bruce is getting at here, I would suggest, is the hard truth of American isolationism and our vexed, uneasy relationship to our country’s dominance on the world stage. We fervently export our democracy but silence dissent. We treasure the sanctity of our safety and the lifestyle that it ensures but are blind to our violence in protection of that comfort. What sort of family – and, by implication, what sort of country – is possible when defined by isolation, when designed to defend itself against the threat of others? Despite Clay and Kelly’s furious attempts to create an oasis of health, gender equity and nonviolence (all of the politically correct ideals of the white, urban upper-middle-class milieu that they occupy – however sheepishly), it is an anxious home. The members of its extended family are a threat, outsiders are a threat, the house alarm system is activated (by the master of the house) and cannot be disabled. The children are at risk: Kayla has a mysterious rash, something – a feral animal? – has gotten into the house and is gnawing at the avocados. Clay and Kelly, confident of their impeccable credentials and intentions as parents, immediately assume that they are under threat from outside sources. Their righteousness makes self-reflection impossible. It is Cash – the plastic surgeon brother of Clay, the man without obligation to politically correct regime of values that define the family ideal of Clay and Kelly – who articulates the critique of this aspirational idealism. The ultimate pragmatist, Cash suggests that when one’s actions are in dissonance with one’s beliefs, learn to accept the behavior and abandon the pretense of belief. Attractive though Cash is as a character for his penetrant humor and disinhibited honesty, his treatment of his girlfriend, Kalina, is ungenerous (however wittily executed). In a Bruce Norris play, no one’s motives go unquestioned. Indeed, Mr. Hadid and Kalina, both voices of a refreshing honesty and insight, are exposed in their self-interestedness and prejudices. Bruce’s willingness to examine the motives, and both the limitations and value of each of his characters – as well as his great, good humor in doing so – is what make his plays politically provocative without being polemical. They take on the human condition in human terms. We are all of us a vexation of good intentions AND disabling appetite, of high idealism AND self-interest, of good faith AND bad behavior. The added value of this examination of human behavior as rendered by Bruce is the skillful way in which he is able to transpose the interpersonal dynamics of his plays into a political key. Bruce is writing about America, about our behavior in our homes and about our behavior on the world stage. He does so with daring, humor and terrific theatrical sophistication. We are very proud to have an adventuresome audience who can meet a playwright of big ideas and of bold expression with their own adventuresomeness and appetite for new ideas. We are thrilled to produce this play under the direction of Anna Shapiro, the newest member of the Steppenwolf ensemble.