SPOILER ALERT! This review reveals important information about the plot of this play. If you are in Newfoundland, you have the opportunity to see this play at the LSPU from October 22–26, 2014. I recommend you go see the play, rather than read my thoughts about it.
I went to see a play yesterday at Neptune Theatre: It is Solved by Walking, written by Catherine Banks, performed by Ruth Lawrence and Hugh Thompson and directed by Mary Vingoe.
The play makes use of Wallace Stevens' poem 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird as a structure for the play which explores art, sex, ambition and the politics of the relationship between the protagonist, Margaret and her (now dead) husband, John.
The play essentially looks at the way sex and love intersect with the work of being a creator (in this case, a poet and poetry scholar) and a woman.
The story of Margaret and John's relationship and of Margaret's "twice deferred, never defended" doctoral thesis is teased out in a conversation between Margaret and Wallace Stevens, who appears here as her imaginary friend, scrutineer, mentor and tormentor.
The questions the play raises are many: Did Margaret's husband sabotage her career? Did she use him as a convenient excuse to not do the work of her thesis and her poetry writing? Was her need to be loved, and to show her husband that she loved him, greater than her need to do her work? What happened to the ambition and confidence she felt as a young woman? Did the inequality that grew in the face of her husband's status of "Doctor" silence her? Did the glory of her husband's rise to Dean of Graduate Studies eclipse her? What role was played by the sexist external culture at play in their lives? What by the quality of the relationship that existed between Margaret and John? And what by the uneasy relationship between Margaret's body and her mind – her sexual longings, her pregnancies, her miscarriage, her abortion? Or the complications of her pregnancies in her fundamentally insecure relationship with her husband (symbolized by her realization that "If I have this baby, he is going to leave me. If I don't have this baby – he is going to leave me.") What of the inevitable breakdown of their marriage and her husband's affair? And years later, his death in a brutal car crash?
Toward the end of the play, Margaret takes the props we have seen in use during the play: several books of poetry, a roll of paper representing her husband's PhD, the red silk shawl he gave to her early in their relationship (when they were in love and in the height of their lust for one another), a crumpled sheet representing the last, hateful time that she and her husband had sex and the bowl of oranges she had always kept in her bedroom in reference to Wallace Stevens' Sunday Morning: "complacencies of the peignoir, and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair". She rolls the bowl of oranges on to the floor – a representation of the elemental force of chaos, to my mind – and then decribes the "Universe of Margaret", carefully stepping over each item and leading Wallace Stevens in her wake. She is making sense of her path, her twisty, winding, complicated path.
Throughout the play, Wallace Stevens calls on Margaret to pay attention to the "sensations". To forget the words of "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", to forget the thoughts and memories about John and her analysis of their relationship (likening that to running electrical current through a dead frog – my favourite line in the show; I wish I could remember it word-for-word). Wallace Stevens calls Margaret to get to the reality of things, to the sensations, to her actual experience of being alive.
Does it matter how she went astray or why? Or even if she went astray at all? At the end of the play, Margaret composes a couple of lines of poetry with which she feels somewhat satisfied. For me, this is where we have been headed all along: through the grief and the betrayal, through the lust and pleasure, back to the calling that Margaret clearly feels, though she has struggled with it and against it for most of her life: the call to create, to put one word after another in the right order until she has expressed something true, something that satisfies her.
And it is something that satisfies Wallace Stevens, too. He has spent much of the play perched at a height, his writing desk and chair at the top of a stepladder about 12 feet about the rest of the set. Sometimes, he has come down to wrangle and grapple with Margaret, to take a role in the unfolding drama of her narrative. Some of these scenes felt to me like balletic pas de deux (kudos to Alexis Milligan for the play's choreography). At the very end of the play, Wallace descends and Margaret ascends to write her lines. Perhaps it was Wallace Stevens she needed to work things out with, more than her husband. Perhaps it was the inner critic, the unreachable standard, that she needed to lay to rest and with whom she needed to make her peace. We leave her writing. As it should be.
To my mind and heart, this was a fascinating play and an excellent production of it.
If you are interested in reading the play, you can buy a copy of it here. Or ask for it at your local library.