INGE AND A SEARCH FOR OPPORTUNITY // BY JOHN CARIANI
Playwright John Cariani questions the disappearance of rural America on the contemporary stage.
I was lucky enough to play Howard in Transport Group’s 2017 revival of Picnic, a play set in a small town in the middle of the country in the middle of the 20th century. As Howard, I got to tell David Patterson, who played Hal, that “[This is] a good business town. A young man can go far.”
In the middle of the 20th century, a young person could go far in a small town.
This doesn’t feel quite so true now.
I’m from a small town—not in the middle of the country, but on the edge of the country. My hometown—the biggest in its county—had 10,500 people when I lived there. Now it has just a little over 9,000—in part because young people from where I grew up were taught that, in order to “go far,” we had to go far away to places where there was opportunity. Opportunity was something that was available in urban places, not in rural ones.
Picnic is about how opportunity—or the lack of it—can define a life; and about how class—and gender—can limit a life. And how much damage dreaming can do—if it’s done wrong. I was touched every night during the run by the compassionate cry for help William Inge was making on behalf of rural people, women in particular, whose lives are dead ends. And I was moved by how complicated the characters in the small town in Kansas were, and by how seriously Inge took them.
Over the course of the run, I was also struck by how well represented small-town America was in mid-20th century American drama: Our Town, The Little Foxes, Summer and Smoke, The Most Happy Fella, and Oklahoma!, to name just a few.
But contemporary rural America—and rural Americans in particular—aren’t really present in contemporary American drama. Foreign rural dwellers are: The Ferryman and The Band’s Visit have charmed and thrilled New York audiences over the past couple of seasons.
Where are the contemporary rural Americans, written by contemporary American writers? Where is our 21st century William Inge?
As we spend a lot of time isolated and apart during this pandemic, I know that many of us are eager to convene again—at the theater. Because live performance literally brings people together.
When we do reconvene, I hope that new plays about rural America and featuring rural Americans will find their way to New York so we urbanites can learn about places we tend to ignore and dismiss.
I think the ideas and the characters we encounter in these plays could do much to bring us closer together.
We could all use a little togetherness right now.
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