Farm Boys Again

Sunday afternoon was the final performance of Farm Boys, except that it wasn’t because it’s been extended a week. It was the second trip for Dave and me, and the third for Terry, and we’re all even thinking of seeing it one more time.

This time around, I knew better what to pay attention to in the characterizations, and I found the piece really compelling — I think I was tearing up all the way through the second act. Part of what I was responding to this time was that John’s feelings about the homophobic midwestern farming town he grew up in reminded me of my own feelings about growing up in Orange County and my own experiences in visiting the place as an adult and being vividly reminded all over again of the pain that I left the place precisely to get away from. The homophobic culture I was too young to escape from and too young to know how to endure, the terrible habits of feeling helplessness and terror and hatred that I fell into in response and which I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to break. The pain of having to confront the conflicted, angry, fearful, and all in all not very admirable young man I used to be, and figure out how to forgive myself for who I once was.

In the play, the young John responded to his environment with rebelliousness and even physical violence, while in my own life I responded in the opposite direction by turning inward and withdrawing from the world around me. I used to have a certain envy for those who could openly rebel like that, but from where I sit now, in my late 40s, it doesn’t seem like as much of a difference as it used to. In both cases we did a lot of conscious harm to others and conscious harm to ourselves. When you’ve been hurt so often and so deeply by others, it’s a tough thing to forgive yourself for having made the conscious choice to hurt someone too, whether it was physical or emotional hurt, and whether it was yourself or someone else you hurt — and more likely than not, it was plenty of both.

I continue to think the play is somewhat underwritten, and that more could be done to emphasize the especially important moments and themes. It’s a rich play with a lot of subtleties, but the main points could be made to stand out a little more strongly. This seemed true of John, in particular — he’s the central character, and yet we don’t spend much time learning what’s making him tick. Granted, he’s a loner and tends to be uncommunicative, but we still want to find our way into his head so we can understand and empathize better with his difficult journey.

John’s having to face up to his own adolescent act of violence, for example, seems like an important moment to me now, but it’s mentioned almost in passing and the moment goes by quickly, and the first time around I didn’t pay much attention to it. Seeing it a second time, now it seems crucial, and I’d have liked to have stayed with that issue just a little longer and seen it developed a little more. The moment when John admits that he had the wrong take on the older man’s character (why am I blanking on his name all of a sudden?), and must confront the fact that he deeply hurt both his lover and himself with his recklessness and naivete, that likewise seems to me now like a moment that it would have been good to stay with a little longer.

In the many years I spent in writing workshops, I came to find that this sort of thing is a common problem with talented but inexperienced playwrights — in playwriting, less is generally more, and someone with talent will have figured out the power of understatement, of saying the minimum necessary to get the point across, letting the audience infer the larger picture from as few deft strokes as can be gotten away with. But at the same time, because you’re writing for a diverse group of people in your audience, and because their attention is also being drawn by the visual elements, writing on stage has to be bolder and more emphatic than writing on the page to make the same effect. Yet on the page is where one writes, and where one reads over what one has written. It takes a lot of actual experience seeing what you’ve written read before an audience, a lot of writing something that you think is going to have a certain effect and then seeing it performed without its making that effect, and rewriting it and seeing what happens then, maybe many times until you figure out how to get it right — it takes a lot of that before you develop a good sense for how big is just big enough.

It seems to me to be sort of like learning to paint murals — you have to do your painting up close, there’s no other way to do it, but you can’t accurately see what the effect is of what you’ve painted except by backing up quite a ways, so it takes some practice just to learn the right degree of exaggeration to put into your painting up close to create an unexaggerated effect from further away. Just in that way, something that sounds like exactly the right degree of nuance and subtlely when you read it out loud in your study will often be far too subtle to make its impression on the audience when spoken on a stage.

This is not to say that a play shouldn’t have enough richness and enough layers that you see more in it with a second or third viewing — it certainly should. A play’s staying power is all about being rich enough to reward seeing several times. But a play also needs to make a good first impression or few people will give it a second look, so you want a play’s main themes and basic structure to be strong and clear enough that an audience will perceive them even on a first seeing.

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