“Wallace Shawn is probably our most original voice in the theater today,” said Maurice Lord, the director of the upcoming Genesis West production of The Designated Mourner. And to clarify this rather sweeping pronouncement, he added the following: “If you see this play, I guarantee one thing — you’re not going to sit there thinking, ‘Oh, this again.’” The Designated Mourner received its premiere in London in 1997 in a production directed by David Hare and starring Miranda Richardson and Mike Nichols. That production was made into a motion picture the next year, even before The Designated Mourner received its second production in New York, with the author, Wallace Shawn, in the role of Jack. In Santa Barbara, Jack will be played by Brian Harwell, along with Jenna Scanlon as Jack’s wife, Judy, and Tom Hinshaw as Judy’s father, Howard, making for three points of view in a sharply etched dramatic prism. All three actors are recent Independent Theater Award winners, and all are known throughout the Santa Barbara theater community as hard-working, consummate professionals. And yet when Lord, the city’s go-to director for outrageously difficult serious drama, talks about The Designated Mourner, he actually sounds a little worried. “It’s impossible,” he said last week by phone. “There’s no safety net, and the words are so brave, bold, and ugly.”
Apparently, this three-person script, which runs approximately two hours without intermission, is an unusually difficult one to memorize and perform. “It may be the least actor-friendly script I’ve done,” said Lord, referring to the demands it makes on the performers. When asked about lead actor Harwell, Lord brings up an earlier role that he played that required him to perform an entire scene hung inverted on a rack. “I think at this point he’d rather be hung upside down,” Lord laughed. “As his director, all I can do is support and scare him.”
In The Designated Mourner, as in the celebrated monologue The Fever, Wallace Shawn examines some of the most painful subjects known to 21st-century bourgeois man. The setting is an English-speaking country in North America sometime near the present, and the political situation is dire. A reactionary rightwing government has taken the law into its own hands, and secret police perform unspeakable acts to terrorize the population out of dissent. On the opposite side are the mobilized masses, who have nothing to lose, and in the middle are all those who once created the culture that this conflict threatens to destroy. Howard is a brilliant writer and dissident, and he is the first to disappear. The next victim is his daughter Judy, leaving Jack to be the designated mourner of the title.
Lord is not enamored of Jack, yet he makes it clear that it is Jack who holds the key to Shawn’s ethical puzzle. “Jack is a moral coward rat of a human being,” said Lord. “He wriggles his way into a superior family. He’s not smart enough to fit in, but he develops a point of view on the events that allows us to sympathize with him.”
Lord downplays the tendency to read Shawn’s work as a theater of political protest, saying that the strength of The Designated Mourner lies in the fact that it is “delicious theater writing at its purest.” The cast will be “better actors for having done it,” he promised, and the show will leave anyone who sees it feeling that they would “never look at a play the same way again.”
The Designated Mourner will be at the McDermott-Crockett Mortuary (2020 Chapala St.) Friday, November 8-Saturday, December 7. For tickets and information, visit genesiswest.org.