Florida Writer’s Vision Comes to ARTS/West in “Shunned”

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If one were to have wandered into ARTS/West last Sunday, February 17, he or she would have stumbled upon a stage brightly lit but bare, containing naught but eight chairs and a white table lingering before a bleak backdrop. But this isn’t the scene of a board meeting or a weekly powwow with the local philosophy club (yes, even despite the host of brimming coffee mugs)—this is a play reading, the second of the 2013 Hodge Podge series to be precise.

Hodge Podge is a program of readings that takes place in the season following the annual Humble Play festival. Since the Humble Play committee must limit October’s festival to the presentation of only the three most outstanding plays from a swath of entries, the Hodge Podge series gives community members the chance to hear and discuss other notable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut.

In this latest installment of the Hodge Podge program, the topic of discussion was Sarasota, Florida resident Larry Parr’s Shunned, a rustic drama depicting the steady splintering of an Amish family living in the Indiana countryside. Marlo Tinkham, actress, playwright and managing director of the Ohio Valley Summer Theater, headed a group of local actors for the reading. Though its brusque, hard title carries a sense of discord, the play begins innocently enough: our narrator evokes a quaint pastoral scene, characterized by its unassuming beauty and peaceful self-sufficiency and populated by none but the two Yoder children. Our protagonist, Levi Yoder, and his sister Mary, exchange stories of youthful disobedience—Levi has viewed a theater performance, however unwittingly, and Mary has taken the family horse Old Jake out for a nighttime ride. While to many secular folk these actions may seem easily written off on the willfulness of youth, one must only wait for the weather to change to see the extent of the implications they carry. Aaron Yoder—a pious father who compares a wife to a horse and urges Levi to marry a girl named Becky because it will double the extent of his farmland—and Catherine Yoder—a woman who has married into the Amish community and has subsequently been forced to give up her passion for painting—both struggle to negotiate between the needs to nurture their children and to maintain fidelity to their professed lifestyle. Ultimately, as the play reveals, these two desires cannot always be reconciled.

Thus, in a dramatic sense the play is a tragedy. In a larger sense, however, it can be seen as a meditation on the moral injunctions and filial expectations held within the Amish community. As it progresses, Shunned explores Amish critiques of what is referred to as “English” society and its perceived decadence, religious notions of sin and its centuries-deep associations with (particularly female) sexuality, and the question of what it means to believe in God and to follow the “plain path.” While his father persistently urges him to “shun the outside world,” Levi feels a growing ambivalence about the Amish rejection of theater and the performing arts. He further befriends a clever, kind, and openly gay man named Mark Cummings and wonders how his pious peers can consider such a person an abomination. Aaron, his well-meaning Papa and stubborn superego, emphasizes the depravity of the “painted” women in the English theater, and punishes Mary’s parody of these women despite its inherent playfulness. As personal and family conflicts come to a head in the violent antics of Gary Smith, a shunned Amish man who changed his name and his faith following a drug-addled rumspringa, Levi is forced to choose between growing up to assume his father’s paternal duties, and seeking out a new place in the secular world.

Parr’s script is bold for its capacity to pose such complex questions in a short span of time. Yet while disputes about religious dogmas and their social effects can often become tense and personal, Shunned makes its query in a way that dignifies both sides of its conflict and thus forces audience members to consider it for themselves. This, of course, is one of the text’s greatest strengths: as ARTS/West’s own Janice Evans put it, “it asked big questions and didn’t pretend to answer them.” Rather, the play puts audience members in the shoes of its Amish characters, prodding them in the process to examine their own and others prejudices from a new (some may contend “old”) standpoint. From this stance, it’s no mistake that Gary, who has openly rejected his Amish values, calls Mark a “faggot from Shipshewana.” Just the opposite, this act effectively highlights the fact that Amish and secular communities alike maintain and even share many destructive prejudices—prejudices that one may do well to examine more closely.

According to Mary Biechler, a member of both the Brick Monkey Theater Ensemble and the Humble Play committee, it was the play’s introspective nature and profound emotional impact that made it a worthy candidate for the Humble Play festival. However, like all works of creativity, it has its imperfections—faults that keen observers began to articulate during the talkback after the reading. While Biechler and audience members lauded Shunned for its engaging use of language, they lamented its need for greater emphasis on questioning and personal struggle, citing the protagonist’s apparent ease of decision-making as evidence of a conflict that has not been fully developed.

The talkback is indeed helpful in encouraging audience members to articulate their response to a performance, but it can be especially useful to a playwright looking to revise a work. Biechler claims that many writers whose works are read for the Hodge Podge series ultimately edit their plays based on comments made by the cast and audience. Yet whether or not Larry Parr decides that the opinions of a few Athens residents are relevant to his creative vision, this remains certain: programs like Hodge Podge prove to be a valuable means to creating support for budding artists throughout the country, and provide a context in which community members can interpret and create meaningful experience from their works.

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