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Howard Sherman: Theatre often moves us but our response depends on what we bring to it

Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life at the Hudson Theatre, New York. Photo: Hubert Smith
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One line started it. “You know that he loved you, don’t you?” That was the moment in Nick Payne’s A Life when tears began to stream down my face and my body shook.

This occurred silently, so I didn’t disturb other theatregoers. Conveniently I was on an aisle, with my guest on the other side, so my emotions weren’t visible to others in the audience.

This intensely emotional response emerged during A Life’s run at the Public Theater this February, where the play was paired with Simon Stephens’ Sea Wall. The double bill is now on Broadway for a limited run.

Sea Wall/A Life review at Public Theater, New York – ‘two transfixing performances by Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal’

My reaction had as much to do with the monologue delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal as it did with my feelings about the passing of my father in 2012, a wound that I fear will never close. I was fortunate that my guest for the theatre that night was one of my closest friends, who had known my dad for decades. I was a mess, but not embarrassed.

To the best of my recollection, this was only the fourth time I have involuntarily responded quite like this at a play or movie. I freely confess to misting up regularly at both sad stories and happy endings. But a dab at my eyes and a quick touch of a tissue to the nose is usually more than enough to mop up the evidence.

Two of the other serious outpourings of tears and silent sobs occurred at productions of Our Town, the first during the third act of David Cromer’s production Off-Broadway, the other late in Act II and continuing into the third of a production at Sing Sing prison, where the play was performed without intermissions. In the latter case, the production’s director, a friend, brought me a box of tissues.

My response to Our Town Off-Broadway, I believe, was prompted at least in part by the recent loss of a friend, which made the funeral and the afterlife conversation more personally affecting than it had on my first viewing. At the prison, I think I was just deeply engaged in the play and, having passed my 50th birthday, ever more aware of my own mortality.

Now that I’m writing a book about Our Town, I don’t experience the same reaction when I see the play. I think this is a result of sheer familiarity, but also because I’m watching it analytically, and studying each production even more rigorously than usual, instead of losing myself in it.

The first time I ever responded with such deep and physical sorrow at the theatre was at a 2005 Off-Broadway revival of Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, a play from the 1950s that I had never seen before. In one of the greatest performances I have ever had the privilege to see, I watched Lois Smith as Carrie Watts desperately wishing she could go home to a town that no longer existed. Her impossible wish and her sorrow at feeling alone conjured up my father, still alive, but bereft at having lost my mother – his whole world – the year before.

In the last case, I think I was in tears for a good 10 minutes, but I assured my wife that I would be okay and declined to leave. As wrecked as I was, I needed to see the rest of the play.

Why do I choose to reveal these difficult moments at the theatre, beyond acknowledging the impact of Sea Wall/A Life as it plays its Broadway run? I do so because it is not simply a reminder of the power of theatre to move us, but also that our response to theatre depends a great deal on what we bring with us into the theatre.

I had seen the Off-Broadway Our Town once before, in the very same production, but I had changed in the interim. The line in A Life that hit me so hard echoed what others had said to me when my father died, and its its essential reality aligned much too closely with my own loss for me to keep any semblance of composure.

I wish I could say that these were ‘good’ cries, in some way purgative or restorative. But I still can’t see them as therapeutic. My emotions in those moments in the theatre remain vivid even now.

None of this is said to deter people from these plays, but rather acknowledge how emotionally attuned to aspects of life and loss I found them, and how they spoke to me in profound ways. I have seen thousands of plays, but these four evenings are a distinctive quartet and perhaps they were in fact steps in healing me or at least helping me to find some peace. I just can’t see it yet.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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