On the surface of things, one might say that Deep Dish Theater Company’s world-premiere production of Triangle playwright Adam Sobsey’s new play, The Gratitude of Wasps, is about divorce; and, of course, that’s true. A cast of five examines the possible results of one particular divorce; but they go much farther afield, as well. They look at divorce as the result of this or that: money or infidelity, contempt or ambition, loss of love or loss of lust. But — and this is a major but — the play is not just about divorce. It is about science; it is about entropy, it is about the status quo; it is about hunting, even — specifically, the long-honored tradition of naming groups of birds. Oh, yes.
It is pointed out to us early in the play that specific types of birds have specific names for their gatherings. For example, there is the group that titles the book by James Lipton, An Exaltation of Larks. In this book, the author assembles historical data from the 13th to the 20th centuries in compiling the terms hunters once used — birders use them now — in identifying, say, a kettle of hawks, a charm of finches, or a parliament of owls. It is very possible that this book was a resource for Sobsey in his research for this play.
But more to the point. Sobsey assembles a cast that is masterfully made up of those we see and those we do not see. The entire cast has assembled in a beach house on the North Carolina coast for what is, for the eldest, their 19th year. They consist of three families. Barbara (MaryKate Cunningham) and her husband, Bruce (Mark Filiaci), have their children with them; Maggie (Jeri Lynn Schulke) and Cal (Charlie Steak) also have their kids in tow; Dennis (one of those we don’t see) is here with his two kids, Peter (another we don’t) and June (Julia Yarwood). In addition to Cal, Peter, and all the rest of the kids but June, we also don’t see Carol, Dennis’s estranged wife and June’s mom. So, although there is a physical cast of only five, the full cast makes up a multitude of 16. This is one of the cruxes of the play and a masterful technique by Sobsey.
Carol is also Maggie’s oldest and dearest friend, and Maggie chafes visibly that Carol is not even here for the first time in 19 years. She is due this evening. Tonight marks the middle of the two weeks normally spent together by the three families, and it is by pre-arrangement that Dennis will be leaving today, so that Carol and her new man — and his 11-year-old daughter — can come. (The man and his daughter are never seen either. That’s three couples, nine kids, and the new guy.) Trouble is, Dennis is struck down — literally — by a wasp sting to the ankle, and has taken to his bed. He not only refuses to leave; he also refuses to speak to anyone, including June. It is making her particularly unhappy.
This play has been in pre-production at Deep Dish for a full year. The result is far better than anyone might expect. From the age old naming of groups — which June takes to heart and begins using on a far wider scale — to the scientific paper that seems to be breaking up Cal’s marriage, this is a complex and fantastically intriguing work. This cast seems skin-fit to their roles, and this is a tremendously dynamic ensemble. Holding her own in a cast of professionals, and also displaying exceptional talent of her own, is Julia Yarwood as June. June, at age 17, longs for the legal term “adult,” still two months away, but more than that she longs for the reunion of her parents, despite the ever-strengthening fact that they will not. She even longs to be adult enough to take part in “the vote,” which she understands will take place, perhaps tonight. Sooner or later, the adults will vote on which of her parents will come to the beach house after this year, and it looks like it will be a dead tie. So, she wants to be able to vote to break the tie and keep her dad coming with her to the beach every year.
We have only brushed the surface of what turns out to be a finely woven and superbly structured work. Deep Dish and director Paul Frellick bring name actors and superb staging to a brand-new work that deserves your attention. These characters talk about everything involved in their lives while we assemble the pieces as they provide them. Shocks there are aplenty, as each of the adults finally releases the secrets he or she has been hoarding for years. But the vote, the climax of the play, only comes in the early hours of the next day, in the lull that settles between the departure of one parent and the arrival of another.
We are given an extraordinary amount of information in this play, and it all fits together like interlocking pieces of a picture puzzle. The staggering part of it is, the picture has shadows and crannies in which lie possibilities we don’t even want to consider. It is a fine piece of playwriting, a fine production, and an amazing amalgam of differing views on what it means to be an adult, a parent, a partner — or not. Sobsey should have a first-class hit on his hands, and you can only see it at Deep Dish.
Deep Dish Theater Company presents The Gratitude of Wasps Thursday-Saturday, May 3-5, 10-12, and 17-19, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 6 and 13, at 3 p.m.; and Wednesday, May 16, at 7:30 p.m. in the space beside Branching Out at the Dillard’s end of University Mall, at the intersection of Estes Drive and U.S. 15-501, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. $16 ($12 students and $14 seniors), except $7 on “Cheap Dish Night”on May 3rd. 919/968-1515 or from etix via the presenter's site. Note 1: There will be post-play discussions following the show’s May 6th and May 10th (“Meet the Playwright”) performances.Deep Dish Theater Company: http://www.deepdishtheater.org/current.htm.