Revisiting Susan Glaspell’s The Outside

by Marcina Zaccaria . . .

(Top) David Patrick Ford, James Ross (Lower) Lluvia Almanza, Jonathan Horvath, Teresa Kelsey

Entering the experiment of watching “virtual” presentations of theatrical work about 11 months ago, I felt truly skeptical.

Theaters scrambled to serve their loyal audience base who felt isolated and in the dark.  Seeking connection, meaning, and purpose, we all slowly developed new patterns of viewing artistic creations on YouTube, Facebook, and that surprising breakout success, Zoom.  Last March, University professors were also stunned.  Crusaders with a new respect for PowerPoint via webinar, they were forced to get active learners into a Zoom room within two weeks, plowing forward and proving that there are many ways to remain on time.

The Metropolitan Playhouse also really stepped up, creating a format for appreciating Village based texts and small lecture rooms, testing the bounds of acting and design. 

Starved for intellectual involvement, I jumped at the opportunity to see the work of Susan Glaspell.  Known for her play, Trifles, this Founder of The Provincetown Playhouse, saw Eugene O’Neill’s work launched into the theatrical stratosphere.

Glaspell is one of those enigmatic figures that you often read about, yet never see performances of her work.  Glad that I didn’t have to dust off my old theater books to encounter dramatic literature written before the 1920s, I clicked on my YouTube link, and listened attentively to the presentation surrounding The Outside.

If we had been in a three-dimensional upstairs space of the cozy Metropolitan, we would have, no doubt, seen period costumes and gestures toward the somber place where the play is set, a life-saving station in the sand dunes.  Instead, a large ramshackle house in Provincetown, MA appeared on the screen.  Then, dedicated performers spoke intently in front of a black and white design, contributed by Liz Engelhardt, artist for the production.

The expressionism of Susan Glaspell is tricky.  In its repetition is an insistence to find the difference between the living space and a space where no life can be found.  Cautious and empty without feeling completely haunted, this entire play lasts less than a half-hour in length, followed by half-hour discussion. Strong female characters hold the ground, while the men bound onto the screen and quickly disappear.

The cast that includes Lluvia Almanza, David Patrick Ford, Jonathan Horvath, Teresa Kelsey, and James Ross is absolutely admirable.  Similarly, direction by Rachael Langton is contemplative and remarkably smooth.  The real stand-out here, though, is the sense of event.  While this half-hour expressionistic drama is certainly dramatically fulfilling, it feels like a precursor to the real show which is the criticism of the work of a pivotal American dramatist.

Glaspell Scholar and NYU Professor Sharon Friedman spoke after the presentation, providing abundant biographical information, including insight into the building blocks of true theatrical genius.  If I had been feeling intellectually starved at the beginning of the presentation, I was truly satisfied, not only with hearing Glaspell’s vision of a stark, soul-seeking journey in 1917, but also with noting the increasing value of a forum for interpretation and conversation.  Knowing that The Metropolitan Playhouse has found a way to skillfully conduct this type of event was such a great relief.  It was clear that someone takes seriously the mission of preserving the history of the American stage, particularly in the Village in NYC.

In remembering the past, it’s likely that we might unearth enough art to get us all through this crisis.  For now, I don’t mind this type of excavation.

Runs thru February 10, Free,

Graphics: Liz Engelhardt