Like all art that treats the story of Christmas with any depth, The Cry Pitch Carrolls is about sorrow and transformation. It's also about how Christianity and men have broken the hearts of once-faithful women. It's about nostalgia for the terror-and apparent clarity-of the Cold War. The Cry Pitch Carrolls is a surreal opera in which a white toy poodle represents our diminished vision of the Lamb of God.
Ruth Margraff's script for the piece, which runs in a Proximity Lab production at Performance Works from tonight until next Sunday (December 8 to 18), is surreal, but it emerged from lived experience.
Margraff sets her stage story in Ishpeming, Michigan, during "a nostalgic nuclear winter". The town is inhabited entirely by widows who live in the snow banks. When a character called the Bible Smuggler's Wife arrives with her son, the Small Christus, and sets up a nativity scene on widow Edith Coppenan's yard, the townswomen protest. "That boy is no messiah," Edith insists. "I saw him gouge his way under my porch and use it as a lavatory." Gradually, though, the widows begin to accept the Bible Smuggler's Wife. In doing so, they recognize her profound loneliness and begin to shed tears for their own, which allows a kind of rebirth.
This is all connected to everyday reality through Margraff's experience of the world as a child. When she was growing up, her father was a Baptist preacher in Ishpeming. "This piece was very much inspired by his first congregation, which was about seven people," Margraff says, on the phone from her home in New York City. "Most of them were widows." She uses the names of three of them to identify characters in her script.
The idea of a bible smuggler also has personal resonance. Bible smugglers were among the many strange visitors who came to Margraff's father's church. The playwright now believes that they were probably bilking the faithful, but at the time she read a book called Tortured for Christ, which was written by Richard Wurmbrand, who sneaked copies of the Christian holy book into the Soviet Union. She prayed fervently for him.
Margraff has set the piece in "a nostalgic nuclear winter" because the Cold War was part of her innocence and she misses it. "We used to live on different sides, but now it's not so easily defined," she comments. Without an easily identifiable antagonist state to distract us, we are left with the awareness that there are sinister-and hidden-forces at work within our own societies, she says. Christianity, as it is practised by many U.S. citizens today, may be part of the problem: "What's so disturbing about evangelical faith in America is that it fits too closely into the glove of capitalism." The widows have reason to distrust the Bible Smuggler's Wife, the writer maintains, because it's hard to keep religion pure in a corrupt culture.
For most of the play, God is defined by his absence. Asked if that perspective was influenced by her relationship with her father, she responds, "Yeah, it probably was. My dad was gone a lot, serving the church and everything. At one point I called it [her father's influence] the Divine Masculine Surveillance. I definitely felt like I was being watched, but I didn't necessarily feel like there was a body. It was more like there was a surveillance device."
The playwright's father didn't touch his children a lot. She remembers him from her teen years: "He had a migraine and we [father, daughter, and son] were in this one-room apartment for a while because my mom took off with a pistol. Very melodramatic. She was in a motel for a while. This was when I was about 17. I had always thought that he was flawless and that he didn't have any sins, but he became this very human person. He was around too much. He actually smelled. I remember trying to reach over and put some ice on him [for his migraines] and it was like reaching through glass because I just wasn't used to touching him or seeing him in a human condition."
Margraff fell away from her father's church and its legalistic interpretations of scripture. She remains suspicious of organized religion, but is currently exploring the mystical Greek Orthodox tradition. "The churches have really old icons," she says. "I love the images. And I have to say that those, to me, are more powerful than the words right now."
Asked what effect she wants The Cry Pitch Carrolls to have on audience members, she replies: "Through the specificity of this very personal world, it's like I'm opening my heart to you. I want you to also open that part of your heart." It's her wish that we understand the children we were and the futures we hold in our hands. "I hope that you feel you can express whatever sorrow you have and transform it into something beautiful."