"Charles Ives Take Me Home": The Supremacy of Memory, Part Two (A Rough And Heartfelt Draft)

Kate Nowlin, Henry Stram, and Drew McVety in Jessica Dickey's "Charles Ives Take Me Home."

The manner in which we live for the next five minutes, five hours, a day, a week, the month, determine our lives. So we are told. So we believe. 

The diet of artistic matter we ingest and into which we invest our time and our devotion determine the artistic experiences we will have. To partake of a diet that is not careful or examined--to which no standards have been applied--is to subscribe to what both Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan told me was a form of artistic suicide. (And contrary to popular belief, we all have and need an artistic life. You're working on and using yours right now.)

We all have rules and signs by which we live. When six people in whom I have trust told me emphatically that any time I might spend in the company of a play called "Charles Ives Take Me Home" by a young woman named Jessica Dickey would lead me to think differently about a variety of things--only one of which was the theatre--I took the words seriously, and I investigated. 

First there was the text. The script was e-mailed to me, and I read it six times, marveling at its use of language and space to tell a story with which all of us can identify. 

Last night I saw the production.

On a set (designed by Andromache Chalfant) that is, at various times, an arena for athletics and emotional battles, a studio, and something of a prison, three people present their definitions and their desires for lives that matter; for time that is well-used; for talents that  go begging.

A father and daughter, both casualties of divorce and of ambitions for which they have found little support, financial or otherwise, defend their choices, never seeming to find much accord. The father is a Juilliard-trained violinist, but fear, both of failing to meet his high standards and of losing the tenuous affections of his daughter, prevent him from taking and pursuing positions that might lead him to greater challenges and acclaim. Acclaim, he craves, whether it is from the New York Philharmonic, his peers, or his daughter, who finds his musical life boring and impenetrable. The daughter wants to play basketball--for the rest of her life. Sweat, she tells us, is liquid gold, the result of a pursuit that can eliminate or reveal the value of stress or fear or loss. A basketball court may be the one square on earth she can recognize, navigate, conquer. Her father likes a composition, a quiet room, time with his violin: That is a space he can master and find some understanding or a dream or a memory. The two may never understand or respect each other, but they have a guide of sorts, a spectral mediator in the form of Charles Ives, the composer who once spent a day tutoring the young father, and whose words and music still resonate. Out of curiosity--and that persistent desire for communion--the daughter investigates Ives and learns that he loved athletics, and that he supported himself in the insurance trade, so that his needs--and those of his family--were met regularly and sufficiently, and his music, borne entirely by and on love, were merely another joy in his life. 

Daniella Topol beautifully directs "Charles Ives Take Me Home" so that it manages to be a vivid play, a penetrating lecture, and an epiphany, often at the same time. One can search for and use words that can alert the reader to the ways in which this play forces us to look at our need for memory and time (and the mastery of both) to function both for ourselves and others, but the real lesson comes from the trio of actors.

Henry Stram, as Ives, has always seemed  plugged into some supernal form of energy and enlightenment, so that his performances always glow from intelligence and a patient kindness toward his characters, his fellow players, and his audiences. Stram has never, in the two decades I've been watching him, simplified a part or failed to fully examine all of its layers, so there is a high-wire effect in watching him take on a role that could, in the wrong hands, destroy this play and fall into a Capra-like pixilation. It never does. Even in silence, in a corner, Stram looks over this play and gives it his blessing, all in character, and all in a style--measured and iconoclastic--of which Charles Ives would approve.

Drew McVety, as the father (with the name John Starr, which already implies the pressure and the pain of dashed hopes) strides across an emotional landscape that includes youthful joy and ambition; cynical curdling; rapt devotion; and, most astonishingly, utter fear, when he realizes that he has not only failed at so many things, but that he might not be remembered at all. There is not a false moment in his performance.

The revelation of the evening was Kate Nowlin, as Laura Starr, the daughter who becomes a coach, and who finds her path and tends to it. In a part that could have devolved into a series of adjectives and poses, Nowlin is very real and touching as a child, a teenager, and an exultant and devastated adult. No one who has suffered the neglect of a parent (or two) or who has been misunderstood in the pursuit of a goal will fail to be moved by her work here. To anyone who might be able to watch as her character simultaneously achieves her dream and suffers her greatest loss and not feel something enormous, I would suggest an intervention.

I am not a critic. This is not a review. But there is so much dissatisfaction among so many (a great deal of it deserved) about what is lacking in the theatre that I feel something should be said or written when something happens that gives hope and reminds us of what is possible within a play and from the effort of theatre artists.

I don't know what else to say. I could share the notes I've written about this play, as well as those shared with me by others who love it, but I can only stress that if you honestly give a damn about plays and what they can achieve, you really have no excuse to not make an effort to see "Charles Ives Take Me Home."

I would look forward to hearing how it affected you; how it touched you; how you now live your life a little bit differently than you did ninety minutes before the lights went down.

"Charles Ives Take Me Home"
Through June 29th only
Rattlestick Theater
224 Waverly Place

A photograph by Drew McVety, on the set of "Charles Ives Take Me Home."


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