Editor's Note: One of the ways that people of my generation were first exposed to Lanford Wilson was through high school and summer camp theater programs. Certainly, that's how I encountered Rimers and Burn This as a Junior Counselor at Buck's Rock Summer Camp. Wilson's early plays in particular make for good high school theatrical fodder as there are lots of parts, but the plays rarely rely overtly on any one person to make them work. But that ignores the content of them to some extent. Rimers, The Hot L Baltimore, Balm In Gilead and the larger cast experimental one acts like The Family Continues are hardly what people think of when they think of high school drama. In this essay, Sergei Burbank tracks down some of his classmates to recall their experience doing Rimers, a play they fully admit they didn't understand at the time, but which has haunted them ever since.
Lanford Wilson’s dark, fractured play The Rimers of Eldritch is a glimpse of hell with gingham. The work shows the lengths to which we go to conceal the evil that we can do. It’s a short work -- just over 60 pages -- but when you perform it, Rimers can feel like forever. I know: I played the dual role of Judge/Preacher in my high school’s production of the play fourteen years ago. For my classmates and I, that hour onstage seemed an eternity -- and the experience left a profound impression that persists a decade and a half later. As I sought out my former classmates for an hour of their time to reminisce about a play we performed for three nights half a lifetime ago, I discovered the piece had been on their minds as much as it was on mine in the intervening years. Something about the play continues to speak to all of us, even though only a couple of us went on to professional (or, in my case, semi-professional) careers in theater.
I wonder what our teacher was thinking at the time. Rimers, set in Wilson’s native state of Missouri, is the fragmented tale of a once-prosperous, decaying Bible Belt coal town, focusing on the murder of aging hermit and town outcast Skelly by a townswoman, Nelly, who believes he is committing rape; in fact, when she arrives on the scene, she interrupts his attempt to prevent the same. There’s a teen pregnancy, moments of shocking vulgarity, a two-page monologue about a woman’s “fantastic tits” and characters who range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. The Music Man this ain’t.
Adding to the difficulty, the impressionistic script jumps vertiginously in time, place, and focus. Multiple scenes often co-exist:
MARY. All the buildings bowing and nodding.
PATSY. Movie house been closed down eight years.
TRUCKER. Can't avoid it. I guess.
NELLY. You fall down, you bruise, you run into things, you're old.
WILMA. The wages of sin lead to death.
PATSY. Tumbleweed blowing down the deserted streets.
MARY. And the flowers dry up and die.
SKELLY. You didn't go to the race to see him kill himself.
PECK. You watch yourself.
EVA. And it covers everything and that's rime.
Wilson’s stage directions demand a bare set; the effect in performance is an unblinking, unsettling portrayal of a society with few, if any, heroes. The audience is given no respite, no way to look away; only the ugliness the characters themselves refuse to see is on display. It’s a lot for a student -- or their parents in the audience -- to grapple with.
It’s an experience that stuck with my classmates. Daniel Isquith teaches high school students on the Upper West Side; he played Robert Conklin -- a troubled young man who embodies everything that seems to have gone wrong about the place: his older brother, known as “Driver,” raced cars at the now-defunct racetrack, and while he’s remembered by Eldritch’s upstanding citizens as the shining light of days gone by, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the play that he was a sexually sadistic bully. Robert, called “Driver Junior,” ambiguous about his brother’s legacy, simultaneously defends and questions it before until succumbing to his darker impulses for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear. It was on Isquith to answer some of those questions for himself:
“Rimers was so stark and brutal. There was no set, just a couple platforms; everything was pantomimed. The starkness of it made the brutality more raw.”
Over the course of the script, as with the unseen character Driver, slices of life in Eldritch reveal an increasingly unflattering picture.
PATSY. It's a trash heap is what it is. I don't know what keeps us here; I swear I don't. Maybe it was all right when you were young. The only people who ever come into town is people to drive around looking around, poking around to see what a ghost town looks like. ... Tumbleweed blowing through town, it's so creepy I don't know how anyone can stand it.
In 1997 Boomtime New York City, the decaying town of Eldritch could not have been more foreign if it was set on another planet. By the end of the 1990s the Dow Jones Industrial Average had doubled, welfare rolls decreased by 18 percent, and eleven million jobs had been created. The unemployment rate almost halved -- from 7.5 percent the year Bill Clinton took office to 4 percent when he left. Our school was in one of the most prosperous neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
“For me, the idea that it was in a small town in the sixties put it so far away from anything -- my stereotypes about people in New Jersey are bad enough,” says Laura Rubin, who played the promiscuous teenager Patsy and now teaches in Manhattan. She found it hard to connect with “people in a small town in Ohio. Yeah, their town is decaying; it’s so sad they’re living in Ohio! There wasn’t a big effort on my part to see the good in this town being portrayed in the play. It’s a weird small town of white people -- they’re crazy. They’re not sophisticated. They’re not us.”
Increasing the rhetorical distance between the characters and ourselves was the element of publicly professed faith. Our school community was the just-invented Fox News Channel’s picture-perfect children of the godless liberal elite. Wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve was considered poor form; any effort to use the bible as a tool for public shaming would have met with derisive laughter.
Jessica Hochman, who today works some twenty feet from my desk at a consulting firm in an industry that could not be further from theater, struggled to inhabit the hyper-religious Evelyn Jackson.
EVELYN. My daughter is a virgin! She's pure! She's a Christian, from a Christian home; a daughter of God and you'd put your word against the word of a virgin. A beer swilling harlot. Everyone knows. A drunken whore of Babylon!
CORA. I talked to her because I knew Skelly would never. Never harm anyone.
EVELYN. Harlot! Daughter of Babylon! Go back to your beer parlor; your house of sin. You couldn't keep your husband and you couldn't keep your whore boy friend. In the name of God.
“There was no part of my family life that resonated with the character,” recalls Hochman. “My grandparents came from a small town, but that didn’t enter into my secular household.”
While in 1997 it was a mere historical curio, Rimers sounds unfortunate echoes with our country now. Today, we understand life in the war-weary and fractious society of 1967. The concept of our slumping into a terminal decline doesn’t merely resonate -- it has become our dominant narrative.
Most seventeen-year-olds, however, are not occupied with the cycles of history, nor are they worried about decline and decay. Daniel Isquith: “At seventeen years old you think you have a decent handle on things; you know you don’t know everything, but you feel you know a hell of a lot more than you actually do.”
Laura Rubin: “I didn’t get it all. There was one scene, two lines in I was supposed to cry, and I wondered ‘why?’ but the structure was exciting. I didn’t understand the layers of unintentional deceit that the character was doing.”
PATSY. I imagine we'll live in Centerville. You know, till we have enough money to get a place or maybe move somewhere. Probably right in town; there's a wonderful place over the barbershop, the Reganson one on the corner with windows on both sides that's been empty for weeks. I only hope someone doesn't beat us to it. I want to tell Chuck to put some money down on it. I don't want to live with his folks. I just can't stand them and I don't think they think too much of me either. They're so square and old-fashioned. They really are. They don't even smoke or believe in make-up or anything.
LENA. Chuck is wonderful, he really is. I'm just so surprised.
PATSY. (Beginning to cry gently.) He was so cute; he said would I mind not being in school next year, junior year and I said of course I'll miss my friends, but would I mind?
With their duplicity and desires, these children were us, even if we couldn’t fully realize them on stage. The late Marlene Clary, our educator and director, had to find performers from her high school corps. The teenaged characters presented a challenge distinct from the older ones. Sometimes, my cast-mates had to portray a sexual awakening that had not yet begun in their offstage lives.
According to Isquith, “sex was a hard thing to wrap my head around; forget rape, sex itself was beyond me ... something I was really comfortable with being beyond me. It wasn’t merely hard, it was impossible for me to access as a seventeen year old. There’s two or three lines before Robert becomes a rapist, I think? Maybe it’s a way of showing how amazingly repressed -- everything is under the rug in this town, and is on the verge of exploding, so it’s on he verge of exploding. As a kid, I wondered ‘how do you play that?’”
“I liked being cast as a sexual being; I had an orgasm right in front of my parents!” Rubin recalls. “It was bad-ass, but not reflective of reality. These were things I thought I should be doing in real life, but instead the show was in contrast to real life. Rimers was an introduction to sex. Whatever struggles I was having as an adolescent ... rehearsal was a respite from that. I learned about sexuality in a safe way, in a safe space. What’s even more remarkable was how this group of teenagers all needed to learn something different about sex, and all got it in different ways from the same text.”
“The biggest thing that stuck out in my mind was how amazingly traumatic it was,” says Isquith, “because Marlene really did push what high schools did. And having a rape scene on stage right in the front of the audience was pretty nuts. One of the nights we did it my grandmother was sitting right in front of the portion of the stage where the rape happens.”
Laura Rubin: “I’m really impressed with Marlene the more I understand the world and what was going on... She held us to real artistic expectations, and we met them. As a teacher now, and having known a lot of teenagers now; I appreciate more and more her high expectations of us. It takes a real leap of faith. What we do on stage she has no control over. The more and more I understand all of that the more impressed and grateful and impressed I am.”
SKELLY. Your brother you know what he did? You know what he did? He had to help himself. Had to help himself out. Out in his car parked on the road and in his room. He had to do it for himself.
ROBERT. Shut up!
SKELLY. That's what I know.
ROBERT. You're disgusting. You should be killed or jailed; my brother was a good person; he was a wonderful person.
SKELLY. He beat Betty Atkins and did it by hand. Jacking all on her. I've seen him. I've seen him.
Daniel Isquith: “Marlene cut a decent amount of stuff; she had to, really. Driver jacking off on the girl, we definitely didn’t do that.”
No matter how safe a space, you would be hard-pressed as a school administrator to sell parents on the idea that Rimers was a useful sex education tool.
Marlene’s cuts to our performance script reflected canny calculations on her part, and a lesson applicable far from the stage: to do the project you want, you pick the battles you can win. If turning a 17-year-old boy into a rapist mere feet from his parents is within acceptable limits of artistic expression, but describing ejaculation is not, you don’t question the underlying logic: you do what you can and move on.
Of course, the very idea that certain topics are appropriate for public consumption while others are not is the thought that metastasizes into the nightmare that is Wilson’s town of Eldritch. (Perhaps, even for well-meaning arts educators, there is only so much frankness one school can take.)
Laura Rubin: “I thought Patsy was a brat and a slut, but she’s also still human, so she’s not happy. That was my basic analysis. And the extent of my analysis of the town was: everyone’s fucked up.”
We acted in the play, but we didn’t necessarily understand it. Ours was the generation coming of age of Natural Born Killers and Chris Farley; subtlety was not the order of the day. With overlapping scenes and chaotic dialogue, it was natural for us to reduce the play into a straightforward whodunit. After all, at its basic points, there is a crime, a trial, various assignations, and a church service -- more than enough fodder to render the script’s subtler points invisible if you lack the sophistication to look for them.
Wilson keeps the overarching message of the play obscure. There is no surrogate for the audience, no cause to champion. Daniel Isquith: “I remember looking and trying to find people who were really good. I could read this play fifty different times and have a different idea what it was about. Which is maybe the sign of it being a good play.”
Laura Rubin: “I thought the play was about race because of Skelly. Marlene cast black students as Skelly, the Judge/Priest, and Lena. So re-reading it this year, I realized it doesn’t say anything about the race of Skelly in the script.”
Daniel Isquith: “Skelly is not necessarily black in the [script]. In my head when we were seventeen I thought ‘well, he has to be black.’ Which is a whole other issue. But in 1997 making him black made a whole lot more sense.”
(Naturally, had Wilson intended Skelly to be black, the denizens of Eldritch wouldn’t have tried Nelly Windrod for killing him to prevent him raping a white teenager: they would have given her a parade.)
Rimers was completely lost on me as well -- in a haze of adolescent self-absorbedness. My high school did two shows a year; going into the fall of my senior year, Skelly was supposed to be “my” part. Over the years, Marlene and I became quite close. In addition to acting in the shows and attending her classes, I worked as her assistant during her summer programs -- an arrangement that kept us working together for 11 months of the year. We remained close after I graduated. In college, I continued working in the summer programs and even stayed in a spare room in Marlene’s house. Marlene’s final directing job was for my now-defunct theatre company, helming a play about the afterlife as she struggled with a terminal illness.
In the summer before my senior year of high school, Marlene winked over her desk and said “have I got a part for you next year.” This line gelled with my own monstrous self-regard; not only was I getting my ticket punched, but I was watching it happen. At auditions, another kid came in, nailed it, got it, and I became a little less special.
Throughout high school, my bi-racial composition had never been a factor in my roles. Race itself was never a theme in our shows, partly because there were so few brown students dedicated to theater, and partly because examining race would have challenged our school’s post-racial utopia in uncomfortable, and perhaps counter-productive ways. Without becoming too much of an apologist for the departed, at the very moment where, across the East River, a public battle waged between Robert Brustein and another theatrical giant named Wilson about the practice of color-blind casting, that same practice was the unifying principle of theatrical life. But in my final year -- after playing Petruchio, Valentine, a policeman, and a mythical Greek captain, among others -- Marlene was choosing a role that acknowledged my otherness.
In retrospect, it was intended perhaps as a kind of final benediction from my mentor: the safe space of rehearsal was going to become a little more honest. After years of hearing tales of my treatment at the hands of the police, the elderly neighbors in my Brighton Beach neighborhood, the former neighborhood friends who I betrayed by going to a better school, she was going to guide me in a role that didn’t reflect our best hopes, but reflected how the world, in fact, was.
But in addition to being a teacher and a friend, she was a director; and that meant awarding the role to the best auditioning actor (eventually, I would be grateful for this early lesson).
At the time, none of the political ramifications registered: as an adolescent, it was all about me. The only thing I knew was that instead of a three-page monologue, I had a paragraph. I understood nothing of what the play had to teach me about loss or self-deception, because I was too busy deceiving myself. Only years later, as America’s seemingly inexhaustible self-regard was exhausted, did Rimers finally hit home. I did not despair then, because part of me thought: “I’ve heard something like this before...”
In the moment, however, a lot of the larger lessons of Rimers were lost on me. I was bitter for having lost out on ‘my’ role. I was obsessed with going to college without any idea that such a thing cost money. It was inconceivable that I would join the armed forces, let alone be drafted into them. When the most important argument swirling around the year 2001 was whether or not it was the true beginning of the next millennium, it was inconceivable that my heart could be broken by a place and not a person.
We did not understand it until much later, but that didn’t stop us. A gaggle of seventeen-year-olds got on stage during the country’s apogee and performed a eulogy for America. Marlene didn’t know it at the time, but in Wilson’s text she had provided us a tool for psychic survival that would be essential in the decades to come.
 These figures are pulled from Branch, Taylor, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. p. 553.