Cool Buddha

Playwright Erik Ehn writes between grace and darkness

"Somewhere between faith and tackiness is the icon," Ehn said during his talk at the MAC, as he held up a novena card of St. Francis.

The playwright is so heavily fixated on the saints that he has written 50 of what he calls The Saint Plays. These days he is particularly interested in Saint Francis and Saint Thrse. Thrse fascinates him because she "died of consumption in her early 20s having done nothing much," he said. "But she wrote about 'the little way'--that you can gain access to Heaven by performing small acts well. I like that idea," Ehn said, as if, for a moment, he considered that his own mitzvahs might bring him eternal peace.

For Ehn is a man of good works. He is involved in community service (a preview performance of Beginner will benefit the North Texas Immigration Coalition). He and his wife are helping his wife's sister, a single mother, raise her child. As a dramatist, he is obsessed with children at risk and alcoholics, and they make haunting appearances in his plays. He said he writes about "alcohol, God, sex, and money. I could stop anyone on the street and I guarantee that person would have thought of those things that day," he said emphatically.

It's hard to disagree with the man.
What I remember most vividly about Ehn's Wolf at the Door: an alcoholic, absentee father finds his way home, but no one is there. He enters the abode anyway, and is caught in a desperate reverie. He lies on the kitchen table and curls his long, lithe body up in a fetal position, his soul at sea. The highly acclaimed play that Richard Hamburger first produced at the Portland Stage, and which Kelly Cotten brought to the Addison Centre Theatre last season, is full of beauty and mystery. It centers on a broken family, yet the piece soars above the sensation of modern dysfunctionalism.

Ehn writes prominently about dysfunction, like most writers. Unlike less capable contemporaries, he doesn't get caught in that mode; his work avoids becoming a smug therapy session on how much families suck. In Wolf at the Door, most of the characters have a certain amount of grace as well as darkness. It is hard to leave a good production of the play exactly the same person.

Beginner, his new play, is about love. Ehn perceives love to be a lot like theater, in that "love involves a transformation of the heart. People resist theater and love," he added, "because they fear transformation."

Interestingly, Ehn also sees theater as fairly rarefied--in the way one falls in love only once, or a few times. "Theater is a pretty specialized art form. The Greeks only went to see theater once a year. I don't know if I could hear a new Beethoven symphony once a week. People beat themselves up for not going to plays," he added. "But there are probably too many plays."

Aren't you putting yourself and some very nice artistic directors out of business, I asked.

"You should only stage a production when you feel like it, instead of this idea that we're going to have six productions every season," said the high priest.

Even theatergoers will be relieved that Ehn gives them absolution for not attending more productions. At the same time, he thinks all theater should be more like a dinner party.

For Ehn, Undermain's Beginner will be much like hosting a Thanksgiving feast. As an audience member, you'll leave it gratified and warm--or disturbed and upset by someone's antics. All Ehn cares about is that it doesn't leave you quite the same as when you sat down.

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