HARD TO WATCH, BUT “SUPERB”

By Philip Pearce

budbill-review

Skot Davis and William J. Wolak in A Song For My Father. Photography by Richard Green

 

 

Entering the Western Stage Studio Theater for A Song For My Father you face a driveway leading to a garage door. When the action starts, a man named Randy Wolf opens the door and you face that most telling symbol of America’s hoarder mentality, the garage too stuffed with junk to house an automobile.

But this is not to be a play about American greed. The dark open space upstage center, as the play progresses, will yield up the flotsam and jetsam—furniture, phones and clothing, walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds and medicine tables—that are significant equipment in the lives of poet Randy and his cantankerous Cleveland working class dad Frank. A Song For My Father probes, dissects and analyzes their fraught relationship with a realism I can only call relentless. “That was cheery,” one spectator cracked after the curtain call. “Powerful, but I tuned out fifteen minutes ago. It was too much,” commented another. Playwright David Budbill’s answer is, “If you never get the blues, this play is not for you.” Western Stage offers it with power and distinction.

Act I is provocative and interactive: Randy challenges, sometimes negotiates his way into a backward look at his stormy relationship with Frank. But Frank and Randy’s mother Ruth stand by and keep interrupting, correcting, protesting in a sometimes funny, sometimes fiery three-way debate. Randy even coerces the other two into staging an improvised sequence in which Frank will play his own drunken and abusive father, Ruth will become Frank’s battered and victimized mother, while Randy plays his own father as a small boy. It’s a warning to both fathers and sons that, too often, we end up recycling the very things we hated most about our parents. The probing and dissection never let up.

There were moments early on when I reacted. “Enough, already!” I thought as the members of this troubled tribe repeated their lone argumentative mantras. “You’re a mess! You’re a mess!” Frank keeps shouting at his son. “She’s not my mother! She’s not my mother!” Randy intones like the boring refrain of some tiresome folk song when Ruth dies and Frank remarries. In a typically well-made play, the playwright would gauge how much we spectators need to be told something, and once the point has sunk in would move on to the next revelation. But I gradually realized that Budbill isn’t feeding us dramatic information, he is forcing us to experience the reality of family conflicts in which the combatants do indeed say the same damned thing over and over again till you want to scream. It’s part of the anguish. It’s central to the experience.

Budbill’s script points up ugly truths about family dysfunction we‘d probably rather not look at. It reminds us, for one thing, that not all conflicts have a resolution. The central issue of the plot, Randy’s desire to understand himself in relationship to his strident, opinionated father, ends only in the chaos of Frank’s slow decline into diabetes and dementia and death. It’s a raw, unpleasant process that occupies much of Act Two, and it’s what caused some spectators to tune out.

The play also offers problems without a list of answers at the back of the book. In his early lucid moments of Act One, Frank is righteously adamant that, though early in his working life he “traveled,” he was never “a traveling man”—the name given to a guy whose travels included seedy assignations in rural hotel rooms at the end of his work day. Yet in his Second Act dementia, Frank suddenly boasts lasciviously of repeated one-night stands when he was on the road as a young salesman. We can hope this is just a demented delusion, but the issue is never settled. Whatever happens in stage plays, this script says that life offers few clear and easy answers. Not even how to understand three poignant moments when Frank, for no obvious reason, says, “I love you, Randy,” and we hope he means it.

It’s strong stuff and calls for good acting and inventive staging. Director Lorenzo Aragon moves the action skillfully around the playing area with subtle light changes that help to mark transitions and to spotlight key moments and characters.

The acting is superb. Skot Davis is able to shade and distinguish Randy Wolf’s varied sufferings, from comic frustrations over his old man‘s illogic, to towering rages worthy of a Greek tragic hero. Emotionally, it ends in a crushing sense of guilt as Randy watches his father die with the lines of communication all blocked. It is an explosive and demanding role which Davis plays with force and assurance..

William J. Wolak is nothing short of brilliant in the even more passionate and complicated role of Frank Wolf. This is a deeply conflicted man, as desperately committed to getting his only son through college and as he is to pouring contempt on him as an erudite yuppie too forgetful of his working class roots to dirty his hands in an honest trade. Wolak’s performance is masterly. His presentation of the horror of Frank’s physical and emotional pain, his slow terrible decline into dementia and death will indeed be strong meat for the casual playgoer.

The wonderful Jill Jackson plays the two women Frank marries. As first wife Ruth she adds an element of patient tenderness sadly lacking in any of the interplay between her son and her husband. Frank admits that marriage to Ruth moved him up a rung of the social ladder, but Jackson never allows her to seem smug or patronizing. We can share Randy’s sincere grief when this sane center of gravity is removed with her death. Enter Frank’s second wife, the perky, shrill Ivy, a nervous Evangelical Christian as well meaning as she is unbearable, especially to Randy. Jackson plays her with a brisk and sympathetic energy that rightfully earned an ovation after the trills and shrieks of one of Ivy’s lengthy phone conversations.

The fourth member of this fine cast, scrubbed and lovely and competent, is Reina Cruz Vazquez. As Frank’s patient and adaptable nursing home care giver Betty, she is a lungful of fresh air in a Second Act thick with the conflict and confusion of Frank’s plummeting health. She is there to offer Frank her quiet humor and healing hands, but even that explodes unexpectedly as Vazquez, in a moment of finely tuned acting, drops the calm and sweet veneer and turns her bottled up exhausted rage on a Frank who is really just another in a working day full of ugly, pawing insatiable geriatric nuisances.

A Song For My Father is not a nice uplifting evening out, but it is challenging and beautiful theater. It continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2 pm until November 24th.

Posted Nov 4, 2013

 

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MARISSA BELL TOFFOLI

David Budbill

An introduction to David Budbill, author of the book Park Songs: a Poem/Play(Exterminating Angel Press, 2012). Happy Life, his most recent book of poems, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2011. Two other Budbill books have also been published by Copper Canyon Press, While We’ve Still Got Feet and Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse. His latest play, A Song for My Father, premiered at Lost Nation Theatre in Montpelier, Vermont, in the spring of 2010 and will be produced again in Salinas, California, at The Western Stage in 2013. Budbill’s prizes and honors include The Vermont Arts Council’s Walter Cerf Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, a National Endowment for the Arts Play Writing Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Poetry, and The Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award for Fiction. When asked about the role of humor in Park Songs, Budbill said, “All I know is, I can’t live my life without humor and neither can my characters.”

Quick Facts on David Budbill

  • David Budbill’s website
  • Home:
  • The southwest corner of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, five miles from blacktop and 35 miles from a traffic light in any direction of the compass.
  • What’s your comfort food:
  • Spaghetti and red sauce with a couple of glasses of red wine.
  • Top reads:
  • Ryokan, Han Shan, Wang Wei, Po Chu-i, and Wendell Berry
  • Current reads:
  • Two books by Ryokan, in translation.

What are you working on at the moment?

More poems for my next book of poems from Copper Canyon Press.

Where did the idea come from for Park Songs?

It started with a play years ago called “Little Acts of Kindness” that ran in Montpelier, VT, in 1993. I’ve generally changed things from that original production, added some characters, rewritten others—the usual tinkering and rewriting that any writer does. And before the play they were monologues spoken by characters in my imagination.

What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

I hope that people, readers or theatregoers, take away a sense of these characters, their lives and the situations they are in in the world. I am always interested in the down-and-out, the forgotten people, the disenfranchised. I want readers or theatregoers to rememberthese characters.

Whom do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

Anybody who has some compassion and sympathy.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Here at my desk in my room upstairs in my house here at home.

Where would you most want to live and write?

Right here where I am right now. I love it here and I don’t want to work anywhere else.

Do you listen to anything while you write?

No. When I listen to music, I listen. And I don’t talk while the music is playing. I talk afterthe music stops. Music is a conversation in another language; it is someone speaking directly to you, and, as your mother must have told you, it is impolite to talk while someone else is speaking.

How does blues music fit in with Park Songs?

I’ve been a jazz and blues fan since I was 12, that’s exactly 50 years ago. Blues seems like the natural music of the people in Park Songs, and not only because the Blues is sometimes sad—such as the lyrics to the blues tune I wrote called “The Life Hurts Blues”—but also because the blues can bring you up as well as down. The blues can release in you powerful feelings of sadness, foreboding and grief, and in the process, it can make you feel better, refreshed, lighter, even happier.

Do you have a philosophy for, or an approach to, how and why you write?

No. I just listen to the voices both inside of me and outside of me and try my damnedest to write down what they say.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Getting down right what I want to say. I think there is a kind of platter circulating in myself somewhere, maybe it’s my head, maybe not. And on that platter are all the poems and characters that appear to me. They are constantly circulating inside of me. I’ve got to catch them when they come around. If I miss them, well, too bad for me, I just wasn’t quick enough or skilled enough or something to catch them. And when they come around again they might not be the same thing or be saying the same thing.

When you’re having trouble getting started on a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

I go for a walk in the woods, or I play some music to take my mind entirely off what I was trying to do.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

I have no idea. I never think about such things. Do I have goals? If I do, they are probably the same ones I had 30 or 40 years ago, and I’ve spent the last 30 or 40 years trying to get to those goals.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates or inspires you?

Here’s one I made up: “Don’t think. Listen.”

And my all-time favorite quote is from Ornette Coleman: “Most whites tend to think that it’s below their dignity to just show suffering and just show any other meaning that has to do with feeling and not with technique or analysis or whatever you call it.”

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Write something every day, even if it’s a grocery list. Use the language every day.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Don’t think. Listen.           

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

Yeah. They ask me where it comes from. It comes from out of nowhere, from my imagination, from the voices I hear, from somewhere. In short, I don’t know where it comes from, and I don’t care.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

Cut wood, garden, play music, ride my mountain bike, watch TV.

About David Budbill

David Budbill has worked as a carpenter’s apprentice, short order cook, Christmas tree farm day laborer, mental hospital attendant, church pastor, teacher, and occasional commentator on NPR’s All Thing Considered. He is also the award-winning author of twelve books of poems, six plays, a novel, a collection of short stories, an opera libretto, and a picture book for children. His books include the bestselling Happy Life (Copper Canyon Press) and Judevine, a collection of narrative poems that forms the basis for Judevine: The Play, which has been performed in 22 states. Budbill was born in Cleveland, Ohio and now lives in the mountains of northern Vermont. David Budbill’s newest book of poems is Park Songs: a Poem/Play published by Exterminating Angel Press (2012).

Buy Park Songs, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer David Budbill.” Words With Writers (October 7, 2012), http://wordswithwriters.com/2012/10/7/david-budbill/.]

Park Songs cover

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October 28, 2011: Interview with Peter Biello on Vermont Public Radio, Morning Edition, (8:15), listen at: http://www.vpr.net/news_detail/92372/

 

David Budbill’s new collection of poetry, Happy Life, is a meditation on the passage of time, life, death, love and a life well-spent in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. A reflection of forty years of living simply, Happy Life takes inspiration from the work of ancient Chinese poets.

He speaks with VPR’s Peter Biello about his life and work.

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Which Silk Shirt: Exploring Poetry and Other Fine Writing

Poet David Budbill’s happy life is not all happiness. When the trees leaf out in spring, he is bothered at the loss of the winter’s barrenness. What a refreshing twist!

His poetry is clear, but not simple, and real, but not melancholy. His new book,Happy Life (Copper Canyon Press), has a calm logic that settles me. He is fallible — and he admits this. The world around him is sometimes imperfect — and he looks into that. The poems, set mostly in the Vermont mountains and seasons where he makes his home, follow his senses and awarenesses.

I’ll be reading this one on “Audio Saucepan” tomorrow evening:

Tomatoes in September
by David Budbill

Every surface in the house covered
with tomatoes, a vat
of boiling water on the stove,
drop them in and wait to see

cracks in their skin, into cold water, out,
cut away the bad spots,
cut out stem end and blossom end,
peel away the skin,

chop them up, drain them in a colander,
dump them into the other
pot in which a mountain of garlic
has been simmering in olive oil:

Brandywine, Juliet, Cosmonaut,
Rosa deBern, all go in,
salt and pepper, then
let them bubble

while you
go smell the house.

 

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