What beautiful days we have been having. Despite the smoke from the Canadian forest fires, the sky seems blue today, the birds are singing and everything looks very green. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel at least one pleasant twinge of gratitude that I live here in Vermont.
I know this is a “books and reading” column, but I want to take a bit of a different tack for a moment and recommend two plays I just saw on a recent trip to New York City.
The first is “Parade” (Bernard B. Jacobs Theater). Leo (Ben Platt, also the early lead in “Dear Evan Hanson”) and Lucille (Micaela Diamond) Frank are a Jewish couple—newlyweds beginning their lives together in the state of Georgia. (The play opens with a strong Confederate tone.) Leo is accused of a brutal crime, and things go from bad to worse for him, and for his devoted wife who loves and believes in him.
Set between 1913 and 1915 and based on a book by Alfred Uhry (with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown), “Parade” tells the story of the actual 1913 rape and murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan and the arrest, trial and sentencing — and eventual lynching — of a Jewish factory superintendent. It’s a sad and deeply unsettling story, set to music — an odd combination, I know, but it works somehow. I couldn’t stop thinking, as I walked through Times Square with my friends after the show, scanning the noisy and cacophonous streets for a taxi, what a wonderful, colorful yet deeply troubled country this is that we live in.
The acting here is superb, and the story, which weaves in themes of justice, prejudice, scapegoating, and love and the way it “rejoices with the truth,” is impactful and hard to forget. I’m still a bit haunted, a few weeks out.
This Sunday, June 11, “Parade” won the 2023 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Hurrah. Well deserved.
“Prima Facie” is a play I had no plan or intention of seeing, nor had I even heard of it, but three people recommended it, so at the last minute I snagged a ticket for my last night in the city. Coincidentally, it is playing right next door to “Parade” at the John Golden Theatre.
Written by Australian/British playwright Suzie Miller, “Prima Facie” is a one-woman show — meaning that the only human being one ever sees on the stage is Jodie Comer, who does an extraordinary job generating intensity, tension, passion and emotional devastation amidst a minimalist set.
I have to say, one-person shows tend to make me a tad nervous, because if the acting and directing isn’t topnotch, they can be exceedingly painful to endure. Plus, I can’t help it, I love interesting, intricate, cool sets. But there was nothing painful (outside of the content of the play. A few on-the-spot creative costume changes, a few tables pushed to the side, and you’re on to the next thing, right with her, galloping into whatever happens next. Not a dull moment, is what I’m saying. Topnotch acting and directing.
Tessa (Comer) is a young, criminal defense barrister, who at the beginning of the show we find twirling about in her book-lined office in a gray tie-wig and black robe, gleefully regaling the audience with tales about her ability to discredit witnesses and get her clients off the hook. She boastfully recounts cases in which she has won the day, ambushing and trouncing opponents, acting out the courtroom dramas.
But when the tables are turned and Tessa herself becomes the victim testifying in court, she experiences firsthand the anguish and confusion of being on the other side of the justice game, interrogated by a whip-smart defense barrister as determined and zealous as she once was herself to poke holes in victims’ testimonies.
It’s a riveting play — one hour, 40 minutes, no intermission — that deals not only with ideas of justice, but also with how the “male” style of interrogation can (1) fail to get to the heart of the matter, and (2) obfuscate rather than clarify the truth, resulting, of course, in countless tragic incidences of miscarriage of justice, which when you look at the statistics is far from fictional and all too real-life.
Interestingly, I just read that Comer’s June 7 performance was cut short because — as she told the audience, 10 minutes into the Wednesday matinee performance — she couldn’t breathe. According to IQAir.com, the air quality in New York City that day was the worst in the world. After a stage manager helped Comer off the stage, the play started from the top with understudy Dani Arlington.
On June 11, Comer was awarded Best Leading Actress in a Play at the 2023 Tony Awards. “This has been my greatest honor,” she said, “and continues to be these three weeks left.”.
I would highly recommend both these plays, if you happen to be in New York any time soon.
As far as books, I have a handful to recommend.
Geraldine Brooks’ “Horse,” inspired by the prizewinning racing thoroughbred Lexington, is a beautiful, well-written story that takes readers from Kentucky in 1850 to New York City in 1954 to Washington, D.C., in 2019. The Civil War South, the powerful bond between human and horse, racism, horse racing, art, history, science and anatomy, love — this is a book well worth your time and attention.
“This is How we Love” by Lisa Moore is another really good read. I love the author’s spare, poetic style and the way she reveals events and occurrences. The novel begins with a phone call, the kind all parents dread. An accident. A crime. An attack. And the parents have to get back home ASAP from a Mexico vacation to deal. Sort of a whodunit but, really, much more than that. Definitely check this book out, it is excellent. All about family and love and the sometimes violent complexities of life and belonging.
“Hello Beautiful” by Ann Napolitano, a 2023 Oprah’s Book Club Pick, is a lovely, straightforward story about four sisters, and a marriage, and another marriage, and how life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan. It touches on trauma and depression, and repression, too, and the bonds and challenges of being part of a large family. Some echoes of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” here. Good summer read. Throw it in your beach bag.
“I Have Some Questions for You” by Rebecca Makkai is another really good book, and like many good books, it revolves around a murder. (Why do we love murder so much? Who knows?) The victim here is Thalia Keith, a senior at a New Hampshire boarding school. But the focus is Thalia’s former roommate, Bodie Kane, film professor and podcaster, who, when the school invites her back to teach a course, is magnetically drawn to the old crime and the mystery and injustice that seem to her to exude from it.
Did the school athletic trainer, Omar Evans, really kill Thalia? Or was it someone else? Bodie’s obsession with what really happened back in the day gets woven into the class she is teaching and the work and psyches of her students.
Makkai is the author of “The Great Believers,” finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. It was also named one of the Ten Best Books of 2028 by The New York Times. And get this: Rebecca Makkai lives part-time in Vermont. Excellent read.
Enjoy these lovely days and good books and maybe get yourself down to New York for some plays before the summer’s through.