Therriault's Dark Side of Paradise Is 'White Death'

Daniel Therriault's vision of Hawaii is not the stuff of which travel brochures are made.

"People don't know Hawaii," said the slim, bespectacled playwright. "They think Hawaii is Waikiki--but to the Hawaiians, Waikiki is where the tourists are. I've spent time there because my wife is blood-Hawaiian, and I was amazed to find this culture that nobody knows about. The truth is that we went in and colonized their island, completely converted their culture, their language, their way of life. We went in with an army and pointed guns at their queen. We castrated their society."

The darker side of that society is the setting for Therriault's latest work, "The White Death" (opening Monday at the Cast Theatre), a Hawaii-based murder mystery.

"I'm taking it to an extreme situation to dramatize certain things, confront a reality that is perhaps not palatable to most people," explained the 34-year-old playwright. "But I really think that's one of the functions of serious theater: to confront ourselves with things we don't want to look at. Do I want seeing my plays to be a happy experience? I don't think in those terms. Do I want a happy life? Well, I want to learn about things, I want to be aware of what life is. So if being happy means you have to blind yourself to certain truths, then I don't want to be happy."

Therriault wants the same for his audience.

"I don't want to make an audience uncomfortable--and I don't (do that)," he stressed. "Audiences make themselves uncomfortable. Say you're walking down 42nd Street and there's a heroin addict in a doorway. One person might say, 'That's disgusting; how can he sit there and upset me like this?' Another guy might say, 'Maybe he didn't do all his (drugs)' and rob him. Another will take his coat. Another will try to help him socially. Another will try to stand him up. Everyone responds differently, but the heroin addict is a fact. If theater is sad or uncomfortable or depresses people, it's because life is sad. Life depresses people.

"We live in a racist society," he continued. "That's a given. Now, some people may find that disturbing or shocking. It may burst their bubble if they're living in Greenwich, Conn. That's not my problem. There should be a form of art that dramatizes certain facts of our society--not to disturb people but because they are facts. It can be done in an entertaining way. I think I'm very entertaining. But I don't want to be out there grandstanding or blowing my own horn. If I wanted to get my point across in a preachy way, I'd be an essayist or a journalist. What I try to do is construct an entertaining night of theater that makes people think."

And makes them applaud? The Chicago-born, New York-based Therriault (who took up writing in 1981 during a slack in his acting career) noted that through his characters "I still act--just not in front of people. And when I sit in a house and watch my play, I get applause. I'm arrogant enough to assume they're not only applauding the actors. So I get enough ego-boosting, validation."

On top of that, his first-ever writing effort, "Battery" (the story of an appliance shop owner who devises his own shock therapy for a manic-depressive assistant) won six Drama-Logue awards in its local outings--at the Cast Theatre in 1983 and the Second Stage in 1986--and is currently being developed for the screen by Tony Richardson and Richard Olivier.

" 'Battery,' " he offers, "is a metaphor for life, of electricity being a life-force." The battery also refers to assault: of man against woman and, like Frankenstein, a patient inevitably turning on his master. "Also, technologically, we have the idea that we can fix everything. In certain circumstances, it's not desirable; it's almost anti-human. But I wanted to show that for some, shock therapy can be invaluable. (In the media), it's always shown as a negative--but it can save people's lives. That's a fact too."

An evaluation of his work?

"I guess I'd call it black comedy, serious comedy," he said. "What I try to do is dramatize what it is to be human--through my own experiences, what I've seen. Drama always asks the question, 'What is man?' Well, I happen to see things that may be serious to other people in a very ironic, funny light. Some people thought 'Battery' was so serious: 'He hit a woman!' But it was just done in Edinburgh, where they said, 'Oh, he's such a witty American, so glib.' Again, it's not me--it's how people perceive it. I think my plays are funny. But then, I have a very bad sense of humor."

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