The Play's the Thing

Sylvie Drake is a former theater critic of the Los Angeles Times. She is currently an artistic associate of the Denver Center Theatre Company and director of media relations and publications for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts

It would not occur to many people, assuming they thought about it at all, that the travails of a community theater in a small Massachusetts town might be of general interest. Theater as an art form is widely considered elitist. It is to films what poetry is to prose: marginal in the diurnal scheme of things.

But Leah Hager Cohen, in her new book, "The Stuff of Dreams," appears unconcerned with such limitations. Her curiosity focuses on something at once more specific and broader: the ineluctable draw that the act of performance holds for just about everyone.

That is why in this improbable little book she has chosen to examine the role of amateur theatricals as opposed to professional theater. In the latter there is always the corrupting carrot of the making of money. But community theater? That's art for art's sake. And what's that all about?

That singular question is what drives this mini-social research project. No surprise then that the best chapters in the book are what you might call the extracurricular ones--not the ones devoted to the cataloged minutiae of the Arlington Friends of the Drama's production of "M. Butterfly" (an unlikely choice in the small and staid community of Arlington, Mass.), but rather those that probe a ritual more ancient than recorded history: the universal and deeply mysterious appeal of exposure and catharsis through performance.

In these chapters, Hager Cohen holds our attention by investigating the primal human need for ritual play, as in the play-acting of children. Despite a fondness for quirky locutions, her reflections are thoughtful, clear and graceful. If they shed no new light, they do succeed in spotlighting some nicely re-articulated truths.

Hager Cohen's account of her earliest contact with performance goes back to her childhood, first as a volunteer with her mother in a production by Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater, then while watching summer repertory deep in the Adirondack woods. Her adult experiences--doing obeisance in guru-driven acting classes and, more valuably, as a street performer in war-torn Nicaragua--offer good answers to good questions about why people willingly surrender days and weeks, dollars and autonomy to creating a fleeting bit of artifice on stage.

As a faithful documentarian, the author provides a history of the Arlington Friends (founded in 1923 and in operation ever since) that reads like a capable master's thesis but falls short of fully engaging the uninvolved. Her blow-by-blow account of the mounting of David Henry Hwang's provocative play, from auditions through opening night and beyond, remains a labor of duty more than of love, rarely rising above the methodical if sincere enterprise it describes.

No matter how large or earnest the effort made by this band of community players, one cannot shake the fact that its aims are ultimately (and in the happiest sense) entirely self-serving. In the end, this slender volume's record of a community theater's activities feels like a bit of an excuse on which to hang coherent musings on what theater--amateur or otherwise--is and does. Anyone in love with the thrill of performance will quickly see that but may wonder whether getting at them through the chronicle of the Arlington Friends, which is really a parallel story, is worth the price of admission.

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