The other week, while standing on the lip of Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona, pondering whether jumping over the edge would fill my soul with exquisite exhilaration or just bowel-releasing terror, I noticed a plaque describing the enormous rock structure that loomed across the canyon.
Spider Rock is holy to the Navajos. It's home to the Spider Woman, the goddess who taught the people to weave. It suddenly dawned on me that the skill of weaving isn't confined to the making of blankets or shawls. It's also the wisdom we gain in terms of how we approach the tapestry of our life, what threads we hold as sacred, what strands we overlook or take for granted.
And just like Minerva's owl, who doesn't know a goddamn thing until dusk has set in, we have no idea how that tapestry is really going to look until we have a moment to reflect on the course of what we called a life, catalog our mistakes and reference our blessings.
There's something of that in J.R. Sussman's new play, For Pete's Sake,receiving its world-premiere production at the Chance Theater; the fragility of life, the interconnectedness of all things and the way that the dreams we hold most dear might keep us from enjoying this moment.
Peter Thornton Sr. (Stephen Lawrence) is a good-natured, struggling actor who is suddenly turned into flesh-colored asphalt while trying to merge onto the freeway. He leaves behind a wife who is pregnant with their child. Peter unexpectedly winds up eating a meal with God (a well-rounded Jim McElenney), who is neither all-powerful nor all-knowing. For reasons lost on this viewer, God gives Peter a chance to help shape the life of his unborn son. Peter asks God to give Peter Jr. everything that Peter Sr. didn't achieve: fame, fortune, glory. He wants his son to be an actor. God consents but with a caveat: the son will be plagued.
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Turns out Peter Thornton Jr. (Darryl Hovis) is a great actor—an Academy Award winner with a beautiful, supportive wife (a vibrant Mary Alyce Kanla) and a child of his own. But through a horrible bit of oversight, tragedy befalls Peter Jr., and the cycle begins again.
Sussman's play could stand a bit of intellectual ballast (if you haven't read it yet, look at Tom Stoppard's Arcadia).It's sweetly packaged fare with a few brutal moments. But while it lacks style, there's no arguing with its earnestness; this is a play set firmly in simple, daily happiness. In this play, the meek truly do inherit the earth.
It's a wonderful sentiment, quite healthy and healing and probably why Hindi yogis don't go on killing sprees. But in this society, in this era, such talk is horse shit—and why For Pete's Sake isn't exactly cutting-edge or volatile theater. Few among us want to be ordinary. We all want to be special and golden and revered and hailed as extraordinary. Sussman's great gift is that she makes balance and the path of least resistance sound plausible. Although Tom Hardy's drab production renders the play visually lifeless and nearly undercuts some of the more eloquent parts of her piece, Sussman's point survives: shit not only happens, but it also happens for a reason. The best that we can hope for is to catch a glimpse of the way our life has unfolded to appreciate why things happened the way they did—and to truly understand when to get the fuck out of life's way and accept loss forever. As the man said, life is what happens while you and I are busy making other plans.
For Pete's Sake at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through April 8. $13-$15.