by Carole Di Tosti
When fantasy and reality merge in the mind of the writer to create art, must the writer jeopardize his soul to achieve greatness? Do the finest writers move to the edge of sanity risking immersion with the fantastic, where they might never return to reality again? Is destruction of the self part of the creative process?
In the fascinating and beautifully rendered production of Shem Bitterman’s The Stone Witch, currently at The Westside Theatre, seminal, aging, celebrated children’s writer Simon Grindberg (in one of Dan Lauria’s most complex, alluring and heartfelt performances) confronts these questions. What results is an intriguing and thrilling ride. The audience gradually becomes engrossed in the Grindberg’s precarious navigation between truth and foreboding fantasies. These threaten his mind, soul and grip on reality. Yet, it is this very darkness that rushes out from the elusive waters of his unconscious and spurs him on. It is this creative, ominous pool that he must drink from to sustain the greatness of his craft.
The Stone Witch adroitly, sensitively directed by Steve Zuckerman seduces the audience into accepting the fantastic worlds of Simon Grindberg from the perspective of an acolyte and budding writer Peter Chandler (the present, engaging Rupak Ginn). Chandler is set up by Grindberg’s editor Clair Forlorni to assist Grindberg in writing a 300 word children’s book with accompanying illustrations for ten thousand dollars. Grindberg will receive the accolades. Chandler will receive the stipend without any credit for his collaboration with Grindberg. Because Chandler is a fan of Grindberg, he is willing to make this devil’s bargain to work with the genius writer. Thus, by signing a contract to assist Grindberg, in effect he demeans his own creation by subsuming all his work under Grindberg’s name.
During the course of Chandler’s interview with Clair, we receive a shadowy portrait of the once productively ferocious writer. Apparently, Grindberg has written nothing for around a decade. Carolyn McCormick’s Clair is spot-on. She manifests the iconic, uber-canny, ruthless editor. Yet, she later morphs into a likeable, caring woman. But initially we recognize that her mercantile interests triumph over her softer nature as she pitches the project to Chandler.
The audience, like Chandler, does not easily question the meretricious values of the publisher and Clair who plan to make a killing off Grindberg with the new work and the re-release of his other successes. Thus, when she implies that Grindberg is unusual and the scene concludes before we learn about the man, a clever turn by the playwright, we don’t know what to expect. However, the magical and mysterious backdrop (one element of the finely wrought and exceptional set design and illustrations by Yael Pardess) upon which projections of a forest appear, gives clues.
Notably, when we meet Grindberg, he seems an average, personable guy, though he smiles rather a lot, a clue. And though he and Chandler spark up a few fireworks at their initial meeting when Grindberg indicates he does not appreciate the underlying cause why Clair sent Chandler, eventually he accepts Chandler’s help. Subsequently, they attempt to work together visited by Clair who monitors the project with hawk’s eyes, talons ever-ready.
All is well, all is fun until it isn’t. The stone witch appears and haunts. On one level it is a book which Peter Chandler produces that Grindberg throws in the garbage. However, the metaphor for what it represents evolves brilliantly throughout Bitterman’s play.
It is at this juncture that a turning point occurs. Grindberg who subtly guides Chandler with advice and subtle lessons in the writerly craft speaks wisdom.
He presents Chandler with an important theme: the artist versus the hack. The stakes leap forward. The dynamic between the two men shifts. Zuckerman’s acute direction propels Bitterman’s rich themes and questions about art. Brilliantly, the actors move the action with suspense and engagement. Lauria and Ginn bring these difficult concepts to life. What fascinates is how the profound relationship between the acolyte and master morphs into an emotional dual. The two writers must confront their inner conflicts against the pull of each other. Underneath is a loving relationship which the acolyte will recognize by the conclusion of the production.
Every lustrous design aspect of The Stone Witch (kudos to Betsy Adams, Christopher Cronin, Brad Peterson, Yael Pardess, Mimi Maxmen, Roger Bellon) makes the production soar.
This must-see production runs with no intermission at the Westside Theatre – Upstairs (407 W. Forty-third). Thankfully, there is yet no end date for the production is just great! Tickets online: https://stonewitchplay.com/
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes