Political topics, like religious ones, can divide families, as nearly everyone in the US now recognizes. This is not news to the rest of the world, however, and David Hare’s The Vertical Hour takes on the challenge of having an international political discussion within a family – and a potential couple – with all members already bearing a load of emotional baggage of secrets, guilt, and harrowing experiences. It is that intensity at the intersection of personal and political lives that first attracted me, an erstwhile producer/director/actor for Soulstice Theatre of St. Francis, WI to the play.
And in some ways, the political tensions in the air and the unresolved problems in Iraq and Syria, still seemed to call out for a play featuring characters involved in political discussions who were simultaneously struggling to come to terms with their intentions – past and present – with the mysteries of their own motives, with the imbalances between their thinking, feeling and willing. As character Nadia Blye remarks early on, ‘Politics is about the reconciliation of the irreconcilable.’ And for much of the play, its characters are unable to reconcile their past actions with their present lives, and they see the unintended consequences, political and personal, of retreating from the truth.
Discovering the play in the drama section of a Milwaukee bookstore, just months after its Broadway production had closed in 2007, I was struck with the timeliness and urgency of the dialogue and drawn to its flawed characters. An English teacher and an employee of Yale University at the time of political protests against the Vietnam War, I could easily relate to the tension between the hopeful journalist/professor Nadia Blye, teaching at Yale, and the cynical, inquisitive Oliver Lucas. Plus, I had lived in the UK for a couple of years, and also really admire Bill Nighy and Julianne Moore. The question was, could I persuade the Soulstice Board to take on a production.
After I had read the play thoroughly, I suggested it in Board Meetings, but the next few seasons had already been shaped, and The Vertical Hour was not going to fit in with seasonal themes. I realized that the play’s appeal was going to be with audiences wanting to be challenged with ideas, and the theatre needed, at that time, to focus more on the inspiring and entertaining, as we were in the process of moving to a new venue with a lot of new expenses. I put The Vertical Hour on my ‘back burner,’ but I also recognized that, as a play of ideas and rich dialogue, it might be well-suited for one of my Reader’s Theatre productions.
Since 1990 I’ve called the groups I work with in Reader’s Theatre “Seat of Our Pants Reader’s Theatre Troupe,” and although we have established it here in Milwaukee as something that more and more people have experienced, there are always new patrons who express their delight and exclaim, “Why have I never heard of Reader’s Theatre before?” They were our target audience.
By the fall of 2015, I had decided it was time to produce a public reading of the play. I have produced and/or acted in dozens of Reader’s Theatre shows, and some have featured costume bits, sound and lighting design, and minimal staging. For The Vertical Hour, though, I wanted the focus to be solely on the characters’ text, on the arguments they presented, and on the personal conflicts they revealed. We dispensed with any lighting and sound effects, and offered our audience the substance of the text.
The play was still highly topical, because it is not limited to discussing the morality or ethics of the US involvement in Iraq. David Hare skillfully links the ambiguities in political and personal motives. He mines the labyrinths of commitment and responsibility.
So I invited some well-known talent to consider the reading, and set a date after the holidays when we could begin working on it. Our first and second readings were in my living room, and it was apparent that this play demanded attention.
Our ‘production’ was a ONE night READING in the Soulstice Theatre lobby – with space for about 40 people, and those hardy souls who ventured out on a cold Feb. 29 night were rewarded with an intense experience. It was intended as a part of Soulstice Theatre’s Monday Funday programs (there had been three this past year) – to attract some new folks perhaps, and to air a play that we might consider producing in full.
Response was excellent. Even during a brief intermission, the room was abuzz with discussion about the play. We had several women who attended our space for the first time simply because they were fans of David Hare, and they contributed enthusiastically afterwards. The cast loved the ideas in the play, found the challenges in the rich text, and agreed that since the play is a single-set, character and speech-action rather than physical action piece, it lent itself well to Reader’s Theatre.
In the end, despite a modest turn out, the actors, patrons, and I were happy that we had finally given the play a hearing, and had got that much closer to ‘that moment, The Vertical Hour, when you can actually be of some use.”