Jim Fitzmorris is an accomplished playwright who knows how to tell a story and has a story worth telling. That he is an accomplished local playwright is lagniappe -- he's splitting time between his hometown and Seattle, where he's pursuing a doctorate in theater at the University of Washington. But it's an especially tasty bit of lagniappe, as one of the main ingredients in the Fitzmorris oeuvre is home-cooked politics. Or, perhaps, a more fitting metaphor would be "home-brewed," not only because campaign headquarters is a bar room, but because this particular brand of the heady elixir of power is as indigenous as a Sazerac or Dixie Beer.
Fitzmorris offered his newest script, The Visitation, recently in a reading at Tulane -- under the direction of longtime collaborator Buzz Podewell. There are plans afoot to mount a full production this winter. Here's hoping; it would a treat.
The Visitation begins with the characters speaking straight out to the audience. Several intriguing themes are announced in aphoristic form: "There is always something underneath," "Prejudice is a fear of a future that will never come to pass," and perhaps most pointedly, "Nostalgia is the memory of a wonderful time that never happened."
The Visitation is the final installment in a quartet of plays that trace the rise of a Louisiana political dynasty. It is, in fact, a prequel, a flashback to how things all began. So, the question of nostalgia and its distortions hovers over the narrative. The connections that link the individual plays (though I'm sure I missed more than I caught) enrich the overall experience. However, this play, like its predecessors, works perfectly well alone.
The action is set in 1962, but jumps back to previous events beginning in 1956, when young veterans Branch McCovey, Pat Lyles Sr. and Peter Cullen return from the Korean War and found a law firm bearing their names.
The crisis at the outset of the drama (in 1962) is ignited by an announcement Branch makes to his buddies: he is going to change the direction of his campaign for state senator. He plans to run as an integrationist -- partly because he realizes that the political power of African Americans will be the key to the future and partly because of a deeply upsetting personal realization he has come to.
Right from the jump, we are treated to a gritty, entertaining and believable trio of chums, played with easy panache by Gavin Mahlie as the decent, likable Branch, Robert Pavlovich as the adept, Machiavellian Pat and Mark McLaughlin as the down-to-earth curmudgeon Pete.
One of the things that makes the play satisfying is the variety of experiences that are woven into the central narrative. For instance, Branch, who delights in terrifying his six children with ghost stories, has spawned a Halloween tradition, according to which each of the men invent a tale of horror for the annual party. This game is played under the pretext that the tales are cautionary and will discourage the children from dangerous activities, such as going into the uncompleted basement (where they risk encountering a werewolf!).
A second and more charged theme concerns race. Maeve Davis (played convincingly by Karen Kaia Livers) works as housekeeper in the McCovey household. She is hardworking, trustworthy, well-liked and highly respected ... until $100 goes missing. For there is a cloud over both the "well-liked" and the "highly respected" -- a cloud not of racism, really, but of conventionality, the passive acceptance of an unfair racial status quo. For instance, it is in an almost offhand fashion that we learn Maeve's husband was killed in action, even though the firm of McCovey, Lyles and Cullen treats military service not only as a badge of pride, but almost a litmus of moral value.
I don't want to give away the story. But suffice it to say, Branch learns something from the incident of the $100 that opens his mind both to his own collusion in social injustice and to new possibilities. Until that moment, the buddies have seen themselves as paladins of the rising young suburban class (they would not even think to add the qualifying "white"). They entered politics to topple the old guard -- "the snobs in their c--k-sucker suits," in Pete's typically redolent phrase. Now, Branch sees beyond that struggle to a more distant future. And, with a cynical vivacity, Pat grasps the vast potential hidden in Branch's seemingly quixotic approach.
Representing the home and hearth is Mimi, Branch's attractive young wife (a spirited Amy Alvarez), who graduates during the play from hausfrau to political player.
Fitzmorris' previous plays (last year's With Malice Towards All, for example) have been corrosively frank about what he has called "the good guys" of politics -- none of whom inspire great confidence in the practical workings of democracy. In this backward glance, however, there is a gentleness and a shimmer of idealism. One only hopes it's not a mirage of nostalgia.
- Maeve Davis (Karen Kaia Livers) helps Branch McCovey (Gavin Mahlie) see the light in the recent reading of Jim Fitzmorris' latest work, The Visitation.