Finn in the Underworld
Written by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Les Waters
Limited Season · Thrust Stage
October 6–November 6, 2005
Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission
OBIE Award-winning director Les Waters, who staged last season’s soulful Eurydice and magnificent Yellowman, brings us the world premiere of a scintillating new play from one of America’s most gifted young writers. The mystery begins when Gwen and Rhoda must clean out their dead father’s house. Little remains, other than the grandfather clock, until they literally bring the house’s ghosts to life. That’s when Gwen’s son, Finn, encounters Carver, a neighbor who holds the key to the family’s secrets. Playwright Jordan Harrison’s sparse, poignant writing is in perfect harmony with this haunting tale of heredity. As they pack up the house and unpack its secrets, his characters discover that the memories we never talk about grow larger…and the rooms we create to keep our families safe are the very places we must avoid.
Jordan Harrison · Playwright
Les Waters · Director
David Korins · Scenic Design
Annie Smart · Costume Design
Matt Frey · Lighting Design
Darron L West · Sound Design
Kevin Johnson · Stage Manager
Scott Horstein · Dramaturg
Madeleine Oldham · Dramaturg
Amy Potozkin · Casting
Janet Foster · Casting
Michael Goldfried · Assistant Director
Reed Birney · Carver
Randy Danson · Rhoda
Clifton Guterman · Finn
Lorri Holt · Gwen
“Riveting, at times astonishing! Strikingly depicted characters…played with raw, riveting intensity…Brilliantly staged…[Director Les] Waters, who bowled over audiences with the inventive riches of his staging of Sarah Ruhl’s haunting Eurydice a year ago, surpasses even that effort in making every design element an active part of the ghostly tale…The entire audience is holding its collective breath!”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Shines a flashlight in the dark and reveals all kinds of monsters…Lorri Holt is riveting…Clifton Guterman shines as the cocky Finn…Reed Birney has a genius for the mysterious, showing us only enough of Carver’s true self to fill the stage with ominous portents.”—San Jose Mercury News
“Its outstanding cast of four provides an evening of theatrical chills and thrills. The suspense immediately builds in this 90-minute one-act mystery aided by stinging sound and lighting effects, flashbacks, and a cleverly devised set that changes the configuration of the rooms.”—KGO-AM
“Deliciously creepy! A time-bending little thriller…The thin line between fantasy and reality, fact and imagination, and even life and death, dissolves almost completely as the story unfolds along a winding path of slyly planned confusion…Diabolically designed to let your mind play tricks on itself.”—Contra Costa Times
“For some, the scariest parts of Finn will be the sex scenes between Guterman and Birney. There’s no nudity, but there’s some boundary pushing. For those less easily shocked, the pleasures of Finn come from its truly creepy tone, much of which comes from [Jordan] Harrison’s mash-up of sex, death, ghosts and mortal insecurity.”—Oakland Tribune
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Through a glass, (less) darkly
Maybe it’s my encroaching old age, or maybe it’s my heightened awareness, or maybe it’s simply a sign of the times, but the invisible world has never been more apparent to me than at this present moment. Mind you, I have never been one for spiritual enlightenment or transcendent communication: when I speak with the dead they never say much back and I have learned to lower my expectations with regard to anything related to higher forms of “seeing.” While on occasion I have pursued certain mystical experiences, they have eluded me, like my car keys, with remarkable consistency.
During the course of the last ten years, however, it has become apparent to me that the reality and force of the invisible world is not to be underestimated. If one simply sits and listens to the universe, a host of experiences revealing both the strange and inexplicable connectedness of material phenomena may rise to the surface of one’s consciousness. Dormant memories may suddenly come alive, dead people may talk to us in our dreams, unrelated events suddenly seem related. In fact, when we look carefully, the vast library of knowledge which we humans have accumulated in our short history on this planet pales in comparison to the vast and infinite sea of invisible energies that is constantly swirling around us.
Jordan Harrison’s exciting new play, Finn in the Underworld, traffics between the visible present and the forgotten past, the knowable mind and the unknowable unconscious, the corporeal body and the ethereal spirit. It is a ghost play written in a time when we don’t believe in ghosts, although we sense (if not know) that Something, indeed, is out there. Through the prism of his wonderful imagination, Harrison is grappling with the complicated truth that the past is never far away from the present; the dead are alive deep inside the living.
We have become used to seeing ghost stories told through the medium of film, through the single lens of the camera that can manipulate the focus of our attention, suspense and fear. Harrison, on the other hand, uses the multiple focus of the stage to create the sense of a shifting point of view. What seems to be one thing is suddenly another, illuminated suddenly and dramatically through the eyes of a different character. As we watch, our sense of security gives way to giddy sensations of unease, surprise and release.
It is always a pleasure to introduce a new writer to you, especially one who delights in giving us all a case of collective goose bumps. Under the reliably sure guidance of Les Waters and his terrific team of designers and actors, we continue our artistic tradition of taking the road less traveled. May it reveal a different landscape and enliven our spirits, hidden as they may be.
Home is where you hang your…
An interview with Jordan Harrison
Spend even two minutes with Jordan Harrison, and you’d never imagine that such a charming, pleasant person could conjure up such a dark and insidious play. His writing, however, dispenses quickly with the surface of life, and delves straight into what skulks underneath it. Finn in the Underworld swims through the murk of human existence, deftly navigating structure in its own unique way. The play sets up rules only to break them down, leaving us with an enticingly chilling reminder that the unknown surrounds us constantly, whether we see it or not. What follows are some of Harrison’s thoughts about the piece, excerpted from a conversation with Berkeley Rep’s literary manager and dramaturg, Madeleine Oldham.
Was this a scary play for you to write?
Well, hmm. No…But there is more of my life in this play than in any of the other plays I’ve written. That’s always a little scary. I have, for instance, packed up my grandmother’s house for sale, and I felt then like I was learning more about the previous two generations of my family than I had ever learned in all of my 25 years. And there was this sense that all this detritus that had been shoved out of our present-day lives had been allowed to come into the living space and run rampant. And I think that’s kind of what’s going on in Finn, only it’s been pushed theatrically further so that it literally takes over the personalities of the characters. They lose the sense of where they end and the house begins. I mean, most haunted-house narratives are about the visitor getting sucked irrevocably into the house itself. I wasn’t scared writing it, but I do think I was surprised that such a sinister play could come from an experience that I wouldn’t ever have described as scary.
I think what’s scary on stage is different than what’s scary in the movies. And I love the way you’re kind of translating that. Onstage it’s about what people do to people. It’s more of a psychological scariness than it is a somebody-in-the-dark scariness.
Theatrical scary is when you know that the characters won’t be able to resist this momentum that’s being exerted on them. In a sense, it’s related to tragic structure. You know this isn’t going to end well for Oedipus (I’m embarrassed to draw that parallel—“my play, like Oedipus…”), or the three sisters, or Medea’s kids. A scary play has to make the audience feel their own impotence. You want them to shout, “Don’t go into that dark room!“ And I would say the penultimate trait of Finn’s character is this desire to go into that room, to fling himself off a cliff. He’s tempted by the idea of negating himself, escaping himself.
Will you talk a little about Part 2?
I think that what’s happening to language and character in the second act is similar to what a movie would do with camera shots and jump cuts. One of the inspirations for the play is the Robert Wise movie, The Haunting, which is based on Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Haunting of Hill House.” There are long sequences where the horror is told with dramatic camera angles leading up the staircase, or shot with a fisheye lens, or reflected in a mirror where people’s faces are distorted, and being a theatre artist, those tools aren’t available to me. So in Part 2, I’m trying to create those distortions with language, with character—things theatre does best.
In a sense, what’s happening in Part 2 of Finn is that the characters are becoming exaggerated versions of themselves—they’re becoming what they most fear and desire. I think all of my plays start to misbehave a bit as they go on. Paula Vogel, my teacher at Brown, has been a really big influence on me. She likes to say that each play should fall apart in pursuit of its aesthetic goal—that there’s a place in each play where once the audience learns the rules, you should start to twist them a little bit. And that that twisting can be a kind of dramatic action in and of itself.
Are you ever in danger of getting lost when you’re doing this? Because when a play starts to fall apart, that’s scary territory for a playwright who’s trying to write something comprehensible.
Yes, and how do you tell the difference between falling apart deliberately and just falling apart? That’s a big question for me. I feel like if you choose the moments when the play becomes abstracted just as deliberately as you made choices when the play was lit by the lights of reason, it will be a rewarding journey. I don’t want to disorient the audiences as much as reorient them. I feel like it’s okay to get lost for 20 minutes if where you end up justifies that journey. Art has to, to some extent, be about impulse. And this isn’t a Pollock painting, by any means, but some of the brushstrokes in Part 2 just feel right to me.
When I was reading it, I had to stop trying to make sense of it and just let it wash over me. I love that your play made me do that.
I think the trick is, giving the audience permission to get lost and assuring them that they’re in good hands, that there is purpose to all of this.
Another one of the things I love about this play is that it’s not just a linear drama. It’s clear that this play has to be a play. And this is a very theatrical play that’s still in a realistic realm.
I was rehearsing my play Kid-Simple with the director Will Frears. And in one difficult, very abstract scene, he stopped everything and said “Why can’t you just write a play with walls and rooms and people who walk into them with needs?” And even though he was being facetious—I think—I kind of liked the sound of that challenge. But even though I set out to write a play with walls and characters with needs, I knew that it would end up spiraling away from that at some point. Those walls would become less reliable. The Vogel twist—it’s the way every process works for me.
When you were going through your grandmother’s house did you feel, a sort of negative, for lack of a better word, a negative presence or energy?
I wouldn’t say I’m one of those people that senses presences or that gets visited by voices of the dead. (I wish I had that talent). It was more like I was amazed that these people I’d known, including my mother, my grandmother, people still living, had done such a scrupulous job of cleaning certain memories out of their life, and out of my life as a result. I once described the play as an ode to the way wasp families deal with grief. It’s very much a play about what is impossible for the characters to say, what is unsayable.
My grandfather was an executive at Polaroid in the days when it was a really groundbreaking technology, and so there were test photographs of a boy swimming in a river—all kinds of images of this person I’d never seen, art that he had made, writing exercises from school…and it was my mother’s dead brother, who I had never heard about. This is actually the second of two plays I wrote that I can directly trace to that experience (The Museum Play is the other one). Two plays where objects remember the people that owned them, in a sense.
Do you believe objects have memory?
I guess I do. I’m particularly interested in objects on stage, because in a play, the red baseball cap is literally a red baseball cap, and it has as much material integrity as the actor does. In a movie, it wouldn’t be quite the same thing—you could make the cap seem more important, you could make it a particularly vivid red, you could film it through a saturated lens. But there’s something about an object on stage: it begins the evening as an innocent object, and then from the way people treat it, it can acquire the power to turn someone from a contemporary 20-year-old into a 13-year-old ghost, for instance. I think the Rockford family is a family defined by their possessions, by this monkey-fur coat that’s supposed to describe them as a European family, or cocktail shakers that made the two sisters kind of dream of being adults. It’s appropriate (also, especially appropriate for the 1950s and early ‘60s) for them to be remembered by the possessions because that’s how they defined their sense of class, their identity.
What I’m hearing you talk about is the meaning that we as an audience will infuse or impose upon these objects, or what they will represent to us—but do you see them as having lives unto themselves?
I definitely have a tendency to anthropomorphize, I remember being at the toy store and taking the stuffed animal that was missing the eye like, “Oh, I’ll rescue that one, I want it, it’s damaged, it must be the one with a soul.” Stories like The Velveteen Rabbit, for instance, teach us to invest objects in that way. I think that in all of my plays the “plastic,” design elements tend to take on more of a storytelling role than they do, maybe, in your average play.
Like in my radio play, Kid-Simple, someone cracks their knuckles and it sounds like an avalanche; the design elements account for a world that is there but that we don’t perceive every day. In the same way that Kid-Simple is a sound design play, Finn is a play for props and set. In a sense, Gwen and Rhoda are always kind of saying, “Everything will be all right.” And all the while the set is closing in on them. Their words say that they’ll be okay, but the set tells us that that isn’t the case.
You mentioned The Haunting and The Haunting of Hill House—are there other things that influenced this play?
The biggest influence is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, as well as an essay that Virginia Woolf wrote about it, in which she says James’ success is to make us afraid of the dark. It’s something unnamed we’re afraid of, something perhaps inside ourselves. I think that’s how she puts it. And, as a recovering guy who fears the dark—I need the Latin root for that!—it seemed like an intriguing challenge. With Turn of the Screw, the unnamed thing is, does this dead gardener, does this dead governess…did they or are they having sexual relationships with the kids? He doesn’t name it, but he knows that the longer it goes unsaid, the more it lingers in the reader’s mind. In this play, Finn’s sexuality, like the violent death in the family’s past, goes unspoken.
So when it comes down to it, what would you say this play is really about?
It seems like I choose based on the mood I’m in or who I’m talking to! Today I would say that it’s about a search for intimacy that goes awry, how’s that? And, I want to make people scared of the dark.
One of the notes that I wrote to myself, when I was reading it, was that one way to know someone or to be intimate with them is to know what they’re afraid of.
And also a way of trying to become intimate with someone is to share your fears and to share—to share your kinks, you know? Finn is incredibly open with this stranger in a way that he would be unable to be with his mother or his aunt. And before it takes a turn for the worse, it’s a weird kind of love story. Or a last-ditch attempt for connection, at least.