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The Glory of Living

Mimi Kramer

In the opening scene of Rebecca Gilman's extraordinarily affecting new play about serial murder and sexual abuse, a 15-year-old girl (Anna Paquin) sits hunched on a couch in a trailer trying to ignore the sounds of her mother entertaining a john behind a jerry-rigged sheet. Sitting with her on the couch is the client's companion, a young drifter (Jeffrey Donovan) who proceeds to try to make conversation with the girl. It's ambiguous talk that might be kindness--an attempt to dispel the awkwardness of an impossible situation--or it might not, and the girl seems to know this. So we relax a little. We let down our guard, and even when the drifter begins pointing things out to the girl about her "body language," we allow ourselves to think that she can take care of herself--that some combination of the adolescent hostility and sexual savvy she demonstrates will come into play before too long and act as a deterrent to predatory behavior. Later, we will come to understand that the scene was a seduction of the audience as much as of one character by another. We'll look back and remember how we were made to experience all the intricate, complex feelings of an adolescent girl encountering predatory behavior for the first time--the uncertainty and discomfort, the embarrassment and fear, and, most of all, the idiotic conviction that everything will be all right.

The Glory of Living, which the Manhattan Class Company is presenting in a no-frills production exquisitely directed by the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, is about how someone who is not a psychopath could end up committing acts of unimaginable cruelty and brutality. It sets out to make incomprehensible acts comprehensible without suggesting we should either condone or excuse them. As such it's very much a play for this particular moment. It also represents a departure for Gilman. In the past, Gilman's protagonists have tended to be highly articulate and educated individuals confronting specific problems, like the assistant dean confronting campus hate-crimes in Spinning Into Butter, or the high-powered journalist in Boy Gets Girl, whose life is destroyed by a stalker. These were characters who loved words and ideas, and who expressed themselves beautifully and at great length?sometimes too beautifully and at too-great length, so that the plays were all telling, no showing.

The world Gilman creates in The Glory of Living is as far as it could be from the bastions of literature and learning that her other plays have focused on. We are in dirt-poor, rural Alabama, where no one uses words particularly well and few people have any experience of abstract ideas. You do what you need to do without thinking about it, whether that means turning tricks with your youngest on the other side of the partition or procuring under-age girls for your husband to violate and abuse. A case-study in the pathology of powerlessness, The Glory of Living gives us a chance to see how Gilman does away from the device of the insightful, self-analyzing character, and she does just fine. Better than fine.

The play is a sort of psychological mystery from which everything we take away is learned without characters explaining themselves or telling us what they think or how they feel. As we watch Lisa, a passive and apparently amoral young woman, take part in a sequence of unimaginable crimes to appease her psychopathic husband, nothing is clear. No explanation is offered. We don't always know what's happening, and we rarely understand anything Lisa does. But because Paquin, the extraordinary Oscar-winning actress from Jane Campion's film, The Piano, plays her, the very lack of an explanation becomes hugely expressive, and we want to know what it's expressive of. What kind of rage is this we're looking at? What would explain Lisa's willingness to visit on others, even smaller and more defenseless than she, the kind of suffering she inflicts? What motivates Lisa's complicity? Why doesn't she run away or try to help the girls? And what strange motivational construct leads her to begin tipping off the police to where the bodies are?

In a sense, Gilman is playing chicken with a dramatic idea, trying to see how heinous a picture of human consciencelessness she can paint and still, without ever asking us to sympathize with her protagonist, manage to move us in the play's closing moments. It makes for a difficult but ultimately rewarding two hours. The Glory of Living is tough to watch at times, and always bewildering, but uplifting in the way of great tragedy that has been flawlessly produced and performed, where the very real human achievement entailed in bringing a grim story to life offsets the devastating nature of its content. Here, consummate acting in the form of understated ensemble work plays a big part. Hoffman has directed with astonishing truth and integrity, skirting pity and melodrama, keeping us ever a little off-balance, so that we're never able to disengage completely and categorize or define what's happening. "Okay that's what this is. It's a play about spousal abuse or sexual abuse or child abuse or victimized women. The Glory of Living is about all those things, yes, but finally it's about something much more ineffable, a kind of disenfranchisement exponentially projected and endlessly mirrored in one person's defeated vision of other people's lives.

The Glory of Living
By Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
MCC Theater, November 15, 2001