THE GREAT DISMAL
Six lives get desperately entangled in the fragile but dangerous ecosystem of the Great Dismal Swamp, where the underground railroad, George Washington’s financial failures, and the complexity theory behind the blinking of fireflies all mysteriously converge. Can an entomologist, his undergraduate assistant, his wife, her “alternative healer,” a mathematician, and the dean of a Christian college figure out what connects them… before it’s too late?
Commissioned by the Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; read by the Ensemble Studio Theatre (NY, 2007) and at the Kennedy Center’s Page-to-Stage Festival (DC, 2007). New draft to be workshopped with The Inkwell in 2013.
The following passage is paraphrased from the proposal I submitted to the Ensemble Studio Theatre, which earned me the commission to write this play:
The project on which I have just begun work is a play that will give dramatic form to complexity theory. The Great Dismal is set at a fictional Christian college located beside the real-life swamp of the play’s title. It features six characters whose lives gradually become more and more entwined as the story unfolds, their connections emerging and solidifying, like a network arising out of the chaos of their disordered lives: Adam, an entomologist looking at population growth patterns in swamp mosquitoes; his wife, Sheila, a painter obsessed with fractals; Harry, his colleague, a mathematician and a direct descendant of the slaves who used to hide in the swamp; Hedge, his boss, the Dean of the college, who resents the evolutionary implications of Adam’s work – and who is sleeping with his wife; Mina, his graduate assistant, who supports her studies by working as a dominatrix; and Belle, an “alternative healer” who needs as much help as she gives.
My inspiration for the play – as well an image I use in it – is the spontaneous emergence of order in the blinking of fireflies. My hope is that the complex lives of these characters, by the end of the play, will cohere into one rhythmic blinking (metaphoric) light that will illuminate the stage. I also intend to use the form of the play itself, as much as possible, to manifest a sense of complexity; my plan is to stage multiple scenes simultaneously, with dialogue occurring between various pairs of characters at once, their lines occasionally overlapping or even repeating.
To make this vision manifest, I began by visiting the swamp for several days, taking long hikes along the ditch trails, observing the wildlife, photographing it, soaking it in. I visited local historical centers, too, and spend a good deal of time in the nearest towns, writing and reading as much swamp history as I could. In time, I established one close connection — a friendship that served to provide me with an essential inside perspective on my subject. My friend both grew up mere miles from the swamp and attended the nearby Christian university. Her insight about various drafts of the play have been invaluable.
The play, as it currently stands, is a complex piece of business to which I must pay further attention, ideally in collaboration with a director and an able workshop crew. I believe I’m close to achieving the vision I laid out for myself, but there is more work yet to be done, I am sure of it… and I am ready to wade back in.