Somewhere along the line, very early in the life of a play, there’s only a pile of pages: words that have come from a brain and been delivered via ink onto wood pulp. The story is there; the characters have been imagined and given voice; though no one — not even the playwright — has seen or heard them yet. By combining ideas with the mechanics of inscription, suddenly a new blueprint exists — a plan for a theatre production that could impact any number of lives.
This week I’ve been thinking about the nature of vocabulary in plays: word choice, to be specific. Why does one particular word come out of the playwright’s head instead of a near-synonym, or an almost-homonym? How can the meaning of a theatrical work be affected by the selection of one term in place of another?
On Thursday evening I got to see a preview of Richard Greenberg’s new play, “Our Mother’s Brief Affair,” which stars the elegant Linda Lavin as a parent who, late in life, confesses a deep secret to her discontented son (Greg Keller) & distant daughter (Kate Arrington).
Early in the play, in a moment of quasi-narration, son Seth declares that his mother raised her children to have several distinct characteristics — including to be worriers.
But wait — go back. Was that worriers? Or was it warriors? I couldn’t tell which of the two had been intoned. Raising a child to be a worrier vs. raising a child to be a warrior — these are two very different parental styles. So early in the play, I had no sense yet of whether Seth & sister Abby were either, or both (worriers or warriors). Suddenly, I was simultaneously watching the play through two different lenses: one in which I sought out signs of the adult children’s neuroses, and a second in which I strove to identify their undercurrents of warrior spirit.
In nearly every scene, I could see at least one of these traits in the characters. Here Seth is fretting; there Abby is fighting the good fight. I kept turning over the line in my head. Which was it supposed to be? Which characteristic had this fictional mother infused into her now-grown children? Which word — which maternal intention — had Greenberg chosen, when the script in his brain was first transferred onto a page?
Briefly I thought: Could it be both? Could this have been done on purpose? Could the ambiguity have been actually written into the script, a play-on-words to declare both at the same time? But — no, it couldn’t be, I concluded. The line in question is exposition, not declaration; and the question of “worrier vs. warrior” isn’t even a central theme of the play. A playwright wouldn’t take the chance of such subtlety when invoking that level of ultra precision in wordplay.
So I went back to wondering — and marveling — at how two such similar-sounding words could cause me to think of these characters so differently. I wasn’t distracted by the question of lexicon; on the contrary, if anything I was doubly engaged. I listened and watched for signs of the worrier/warrior dichotomy; I used each scene as a roadmap into the head of the playwright, seeking clues into the mindsets & motivations of the characters.
The script hasn’t been published yet, so the question continues to rattle around in my brain. I’m kind of obsessed with it, in an enjoyable way. I guess I’ve decided that both are correct; I wouldn’t be surprised to see either word in the script when it is released later this month. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to check, doesn’t want to read the word, whichever it ends up being. I like the fact that I wonder so much, and that I’ve gone back to so many different parts of the play to analyze which “w” word Greenberg must have intended.
In a way that’s exactly when theatre is at its most successful; when, upon departure, the audience is left with questions that, when explored, give the play & its characters infinite depth.
By the way — I would venture to guess that few if any other audience members have felt their brains snag on this particular question of worrier vs. warrior in Our Mother’s Brief Affair. I’m sure the fact that I noticed has everything to do with my upbringing in California, where warrior is pronounced very much like East Coasters tend to say worrier. (Don’t misunderstand, though; Greenberg’s play presents a much bigger question that will surely lead theatre-goers into lengthy discussions over drinks at The Glass House post-show!)
The bottom line is that for days, I’ve been thinking nonstop about the implications of a single word in the script of a play. Recognizing that instance has made me extra cognizant of the importance of every word; and that awareness has led me to an intense gratitude for the playwrights that make those choices, as they transfer their visions onto paper so that we, the lucky audience members, will get to experience their plays.
Tickets to "Our Mother's Brief Affair" are available here.