by Dr. David Glen Robinson
This production of Mickle Maher’s There is a Happiness That Morning Is generated considerable marketing material on its fictional premise: two teachers of William Blake’s poetry at a crumbling east coast liberal arts college became so overwhelmed by it all that they had throwdown carnal knowledge of each other on the leafy day-lit campus. Their students witnessed their intimacy, as did the president of the college, and everyone else. The president and trustees want them to apologize and resign.
Well, playwright Maher knows well that the past is prologue, and as the play starts, one of the participants, Bernard (Jason Phelps), explains that that was all yesterday, and this is the happiness of the next morning. Thus the play is essentially aftermath.
Yes, Bernard is clearly demented from teaching Blake for fifteen years (the only class the college ever allowed him to teach), and all he wants is to apologize, resign, and go on living his life of joy with his beloved and gorgeous Ellen (Katherine Catmull), who has been his mate for about twenty years.
Ellen is made of sterner stuff. She refers to the college president in gutter language, and does the same with all others who humiliated her in the very triumph of her love. These two characters speak in verse, delivering Maher’s poetry about Blake’s poetry and their issues with the college. The contrasts in their affective states create the comedy in the play and heighten the consequences of their deeds.
Plays written almost entirely in verse glamorize almost any subject and thematic material. When that material is love, loss, and hope, the play takes on a rare, sustaining beauty uncommon in modern plays. This play has that beauty in abundance, and the exquisite abilities of Jason Phelps and Catherine Catmull in speaking and acting in verse ensure its success. It is true that casting in modern plays is the single strongest variable in a play’s success, and it is true for There is a Happiness That Morning Is.
|Jason Phelps, Katherine Catmull (photo: Bret Brookshire)|
The design fields hold up their end of the bargain. The set design by Mark Pickell, who also directed, uses the unusual shape and size of the Hyde Park audience space to realize the concept of a lecture hall in a down-at-heel liberal arts college. Simple and good; the audience becomes the students in the classes of the two shamed professors.
Nothing is perfect, and There is a Happiness That Morning Is has a major lulu. The third character in the play is entirely uncredited. This is a deliberate omission to create a thoroughly unnecessary surprise (there are other surprises and plot twists in abundance in this play). The device of the surprise character is acceptable for cameo roles or walk-on actions, but not for substantial work, significant time on stage, and contributions to the story, as in this case. A union state probably would not allow the practice.
The above is not particularly a spoiler, nor is it intended to be. The Capitol T Theatre production of There Is a Happiness That Morning Is comes highly recommended for all adult audiences. The play treats the themes of love, desperation, and uncertainty so poetically well that when the modestly attired professors first cross the stage to each other and quietly embrace, one senses how something enormous this play is.
Others have sensed this enormity and the Hyde Park Theatre in central Austin has held the play over until November 23rd. Reservations are strongly recommended.