How Theater Saved The World From My Self-Deluded Arrogance (And A Brief Review Of Beau Jest) – Act I

My sister was always better at sports than I was, starting at goalie on our high school varsity soccer team and playing baseball with the boys until she made the transition to softball her freshman year. I remember spending hours on the road going to and from her tournaments, crammed in the back of my mom’s Ford Ranger, passing the time on the little fold-down “seat” that faced sideways behind the front seats by reading or playing games. I stayed in that backseat for much of my childhood until I found my own niche in high school, one I stumbled upon by accident but dove headfirst into after I got my first taste: theater. A friend of mine asked me one day if I would go with him to audition for a play after school in the theater. I didn’t know there were auditions going on, that a play was coming up, or that there was a theater on our campus, but I agreed, got a part, and invested my free time in plays for the next two years.

I always doubted myself playing sports, beating myself up for making a mistake on the field and expecting to be as great as my sister. But onstage I didn’t make mistakes, I made choices. Some choices weren’t very good ones, but I found that I made many more good choices than bad, so that when I had to correct something it wasn’t such a big blow to my ego, and I could learn to role with the punches and adapt in order to make something beautiful. And that was what each show was an opportunity to do: make something beautiful. It was different every time, and in learning different characters and becoming them onstage with all of their quirks and personalities and back-stories, I went through the process of learning who I was and became myself offstage.

There was always poignant beauty for me to find in plays, discovering life’s great truths in a series of bite sized acts, partitioned by an intermission and ending at a predictable time. And while life itself is much more complex than what we see onstage, so is the play, and it is a truly great play that can communicate the complexity of life on a single stage in two hours. Beau Jest did just that.

Beau Jest is a comedy that revolves around a woman, Sarah, who is in a long-term relationship with a man that her family does not approve of because he is not Jewish, which their entire family system is. She hires a man to pose as her boyfriend, an actor pretending to be a Jewish doctor, and has him stand in at their family celebrations. The resulting dinners are laugh out loud funny, with the stand-in-boyfriend bluffing his way through the Seder and other Jewish customs, and impressing the family and gaining their approval along the way. As you can imagine, however, this lie begins to grow bigger and more complicated (read hilarious) as the play continues, and when the truth is inevitably revealed her parents are not thrilled, to say the least. The mood swiftly shifts from light and comedic to tense and agitated, and when the ensuing argument reaches it’s climax, Sarah’s father, Abe, shouts:

“You don’t lie to your parents!… I’ll tell you when you lie. You lie to the man who tells you you can’t come into his country because you don’t have a sponsor. You lie to the man who says you can’t go to his school because you have a name that sounds funny. You lie to the kid who comes into your store and holds a gun to your head and wants to take your life from you.”

The air was immediately sucked out of the room as everyone collectively held their breath and the scene came to a rapid halt. As the dust began to settle and the play moved along, I could tell that most of the people in the audience were just as shell-shocked as me, unpacking and processing every layer that was hidden in Abe’s outburst. As I peeled back these layers, I found the complicated and often painful realities of lying, the messiness of every family dynamic, and the spot-on political truth that was so raw and difficult many years ago and means so much now. What I found most powerful, however, was that, in just five lines, Abe revealed the power of a story and put my heart in the spotlight.

In the midst of the ongoing chaos onstage, the audience is swept up in Sarah’s point of view, and affirms her claims about how her parents expectations are ruining her life. We become so immersed in one side of the story that we forget there are other actors and, if those people have done their homework, stories onstage. But when a nerve is touched in Abe, one that runs deep into his past, he flings open the wound that has caused him to control parts of Sarah’s life. We see that his wounds have driven him to try and insure that his daughter is not wounded as well, that she is not rejected like he was, that she is embraced like he wanted to be. 

Far too often it takes moments like this for us to see that real, raw, flesh and blood humanity exists around us, moments where someone’s deepest wounds are poked and prodded until they react to the pain we inflict with anger or sorrow or hatred. We are so caught up in our own narrative that we completely forget that there are other people in this world and stories attached to them. We are deluded, assuming that all the other actors exist one-dimensionally on our stage solely to serve our storyline. But if that were true, then we too are simply one-dimensional characters on their stage serving their storyline. If, however, everyone around us has a stage and a story too, then nobody’s story can be one-sided and must be integrally connected. I think we are stories overlapping and interweaving, sharing a common stage and following individual narratives that must interact dynamically with one another.

But a high school me didn’t understand that, because I was finally good at something and enjoyed every minute of my turn in the spotlight. It took a moment extreme pride and deep, self-inflicted humiliation for me to understand how arrogant I had become and how desperately I needed others to live a full story.

More on that in Act II.

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