A tragedy of botany and madness in Pitt’s production of “The Verge”

Directed+by+Andrea+Gunoe%2C+a+fifth-year+Ph.D.+student+in+theater+arts%2C+and+written+by+playwright+Susan+Glaspell%2C+%E2%80%9CThe+Verge%E2%80%9D+will+run+from+Feb.+6+to+Feb.+16+at+the+Charity+Randall+Theater.+

Poster courtesy of Pitt Stages

Directed by Andrea Gunoe, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in theater arts, and written by playwright Susan Glaspell, “The Verge” will run from Feb. 6 to Feb. 16 at the Charity Randall Theater.

By Simon Sweeney, For The Pitt News

A woman stands alone onstage in a greenhouse completely cluttered by pots, dirt and plants.

Occasionally, another person or two will join her for a time, but the true stars of “The Verge” are this woman and her plants. 

This little-known play is Pitt’s latest Mainstage production, running from Feb. 6 to Feb. 16 at the Charity Randall Theater and directed by Andrea Gunoe, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in theater arts.

Playwright Susan Glaspell wrote “The Verge” nearly 100 years ago, and it premiered in 1921 to mostly negative reviews. The show is the Department of Theatre Arts’ third full-fledged Mainstage production of the 2019-20 season, following “Next to Normal” and “The Wolves” in October and November, respectively.

The play centers on a botanist, Claire Archer, who begins to develop a new plant called the “breath of life.” As it nears its bloom, she begins to lose her grip on reality, throwing her interpersonal relationships into disarray. Gunoe said the show is a feminist work portraying a woman’s gradual descent into madness.

“It’s a show that’s hard to describe, it doesn’t fit into one thing like comedy or tragedy,” Gunoe said. “It’s about a female botanist who goes a little crazy over the course of the play — she’s trying to create a plant that’s never existed before. It’s about creation and destruction and community and the grotesque and lots of dichotomies.”

According to Gunoe, Glaspell’s script breaks frequently from conventions of genre and standard storytelling. There are long, poetic speeches and significant tonal shifts, from exaggerated farce to intense drama, which Gunoe said leads to bewilderment on the part of some audiences. Despite this reception negatively impacting past productions, Gunoe said it doesn’t bother her.

“I think you could tone it down and make it more of a tragedy, but I decided to really push the farcical nature. There is a lot of poetry in the play, a lot of really poetic lines,” she said. “Personally, as a director, I don’t really mind if the audience is a little confused or a little uncomfortable — that’s the power of art.”

Her vision for the show isn’t interested in pulling back from the themes that Glaspell was focused on, even if they played a part in the play’s initial negative reception, according to dramaturge Leann Mullen, a senior theater arts and English writing double major.

“Talking with [Gunoe], she had a very strong vision from the first time we spoke,” she said. “She had certain things she wanted to really pull out around gender and this idea of madness and nature.”

The show’s feminist thematic concerns may have given early audiences pause, but Pitt’s production brings the show to light. The actor who portrays Claire, Emily Peifer, a senior linguistics and Spanish double major, said producing the show is allowing its messages to impact a 21st century world that still needs to hear them.

“It was very ahead of its time, I think,” Peifer said. “When it first was written and performed it was received with a lot of fear because it was written by a woman and portrayed a woman who didn’t want to conform to society, and that was really scary for a lot of people.”

According to Gunoe, she deliberately selected the play to bring these themes of conformity and womanhood into the world of 2020, where she said they still hold significant relevance but aren’t addressed enough.

“It’s about a woman trying to get things done that were very difficult for a woman to do,” Gunoe said. “I wanted to direct a feminist work and a work by women and it was important to me to highlight Susan Glaspell and her importance to history, as she’s not produced very often.”

Peifer said Claire’s focus on her work, which ruins her relationships with family and friends, including her daughter Elizabeth, is a fundamental aspect of the text. She develops an obsession with creating new plant life at the cost of maintaining ties to the human life she created, a dynamic Peifer is enthusiastic to portray.

“Her daughter is sort of her antithesis in a way, because you have Claire opposing everything that she is supposed to want and you have Elizabeth embracing it,” she said. “So there is this very intense dichotomy between the two and how they interact during the show.”

According to Peifer, the text of the play is challenging but fascinating, depicting Claire’s spiral into obsessive insanity with a winding script that avoids describing sets, sounds and performances in extreme detail. Gunoe said this leaves each new production with a large swath of room to maneuver in interpreting the text in a fresh way.

“It’s a play that’s really kind of dreamlike. It doesn’t really do any one thing, so I think any production relies on interpretation,” Gunoe said. “Our set is very expressionist but our costumes are a little bit more realistic. I think everyone just enhanced different parts of the script.”

When preparing for the production, Gunoe made some tweaks to the original script, including the gender-swapping of a character, Anna, portrayed as a man named Anthony in prior productions. The show’s crew also brought in original technical effects, including all-new Foley sound effects, or reproductions of everyday sounds. Mullen said these technical effects lend a fresh depth to the production’s dreamlike feeling.

“We use a lot of technical elements in the show to break apart when we’re in the actual world versus when the audience is entering Claire’s world and her perspective, and a lot of that is done with sound,” Mullen said. “[These elements] make the world seem a little less realistic and a little bit more in this realm of madness.”

Peifer said she puts that madness at the forefront of her performance to imbue a passion in Claire that resonated deeply with her from the moment she first read the script. She said many of the themes represented in “The Verge” are extremely relevant in the present day and past due for public presentation.

“She wants this otherness because she doesn’t want to be like everyone else, and she wants to go into a place where she’s not held in forms that are set for her or molded for her already, she wants to be different,” she said. “I’m so excited to bring this show to the people.”

 

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