A few seasons ago I headed out for my friend's place on Bowen Island to catch up on my play reading. Several bankers boxes of manuscripts, and probably a bunch more on my hard drive.
A bit of a chore, I'll admit. Smart artistic directors read scripts as they come in, keeping their eye open for the occasional play that really catches their eye, letting the others shift onto the "Not For Us" pile without a lot of fuss. But I'm not smart that way. I kind of find it off-putting to read scripts I'm not interested in - perhaps the legacy of a sometimes English major in my undergrad studies, and a force-fed diet of curriculum reading - an obligation rather than a perk of being an artistic director.
So I started working my way through one of the piles. Scripts playwrights had sent. Scripts playwrights' publishers, or agents, or moms had sent. Scripts people had recommended because they saw the show in New York or Ashland or Saskatoon. Scripts of plays I had read about somewhere. Scripts people had read about somewhere.
First half a dozen or so, I thought, "Yeah, I could see that. Good role for so-and-so. Canadian - that's good. I wonder if he's open to rewrites?" Or, "Well, maybe in a season where I really needed such-and-such a piece, to balance pieces that are this and that." Or, "Well, if it's the only play on earth we haven't done aside from You're A Good Man Charlie Brown." Lots of Possibles. A few Hopefully It Never Comes To Thats.
And then Mother Teresa Is Dead. I read one page, two pages, and I was exhilarated. "Now this is a play!" Suddenly all the Maybe Sorta plays just fell off the side of the desk. This was a Definitely Have To. This was real writing.
Which is precisely what I felt when I first read The Clearing by the same author, Helen Edmundson, who writes a lot for the Royal Shakespeare in England. Lots of adaptations, but now and then an original work, like these. When I finished reading The Clearing I was struck with the breadth of the piece, its scope: it seemed as though I had just finished reading an entire novel.
After Mother Teresa I realized I couldn't think of a single other play dealing with the concerns of this piece. One or two films, but only one or two - Anders Thomas Jensen & Susanne Bier's After The Wedding, or Nicole Holofcener's Please Give, perhaps. And yet these questions are on my mind constantly: these questions of western privilege and the vast need of the rest of the world, the soul-scraping awareness of poverty in my own city, my own neighbourhood. The plaguing thought that maybe we ought to treat other people the way we would want to be treated if we were in their place. The confounding reality that our practical attempts to live with some practical compassion can go so badly wrong, that the world - and our own hearts - are a baffling mess of simple generosity and complex guilt, of responsibility and recklessness, of love and self-serving, of high-minded intentions that are never acted on, muddle-headed actions with all kinds of wrong consequences - right alongside all the good and right that may be accomplished nonetheless.
I think of Leo Tolstoi's book, "What then must we do?" Prompted by the people's question to John the Baptist, "How then shall we live?" The question that drove one of the most intriguing characters in film, Billy Kwan, in The Year Of Living Dangerously.
It's not the only question in Mother Teresa Is Dead. The play is far too complex, nuanced, and human to be reduced to any single "theme statement." But that sort of question is in the centre of this play, and drives its characters. And I think it's a question that matters.