Today, while I was wishing John Paulsen a happy birthday, a flood of memories came to me. John (who stars in SJ Chiro's and Keri Healey's film Howard From Ohio at SIFF) played the gentleman caller victimized by the crazed, middle-aged daughters of serial killer Ruth Parker in my play "The Red Room." Directed by Leslie "Take No Prisoners" Swackhamer with a set designed by genius Etta Lilienthal, this show was truly haunting.
I still meet people who saw the production, who say they sometimes have nightmares set in the Parker house. I recall every moment of the show so vividly:
The clear plastic draped like sheets on a clothes line reflected and distorted the faces of the women. An antique dentist's chair with leather and metal restraints waited like a recently cleaned shotgun, center stage. The crunch of the shovel in the orchard's dirt was as chilling as the violence that preceded it. The poetic language of certain ritualized scenes mitigated the horrific actions of the characters. People found these actions abhorrent, but they couldn't look away.
This was a show that unintentionally divided the audience. Women thanked me for putting powerful (if also demented) female characters on stage in all their sickening glory. They said the play was exhilarating and cathartic. They loved the scent of the black earth in the burial ground on stage, and the ominous humming of the bees.
Quite a few men who emerged from the theater after the final horror looked at me as if they'd been gob-smacked. Some of these guys mumbled things like "gee it's dark in there" as they stumbled toward the exit. The play was never meant to have this effect. I concluded that it's simply that strange--still--for men to see strong women committing horrible acts in performance. We live in such a state of denial about the human soul and its twisted desires. We live so nicely. But the stage is not about making nice. If it were, it would be a waste of time.
Only John Paulsen, a wonderful actor I've admired for years, had the nerve to go to this dark place with a cast of brilliant, wild women including Morgan Rowe and Beth Peterson. The world they inhabited was disturbing, to say the least. They made it compelling. I am forever grateful to them for understanding "The Red Room," for taking its terrible themes to heart, and for lending themselves to it without reservation.