Theater on the rocks

Rick Davis
Rick Davis

By Rick Davis

I worry sometimes about the future of the theater. I guess that’s an occupational hazard as I have spent my life in and around the art form often called “The Fabulous Invalid.” It has, after all, been on and off life support for 2,500 years, and various religious, political and commercial regimes have tried through the millennia to pull the plug once and for all.

Yet this tenacious creature somehow manages to find new reasons to live. It crawls toward the light of even the darkest, most suffocating environments because some elemental energy begins to pulse when living human beings gather to tell stories and share emotions.

That act of gathering is the irreducible essence of the theater. The creation of a temporary community, a civitas, of artists to perform the work, and then an audience to witness it, replicates night after night the civilizing human impulse to join together in a common purpose.

Which brings me at long last to the main point of this piece. Rappahannock County is home to an astonishing community of what I have elsewhere called “citizen-artists” — folks who have distinguished careers in law and politics and finance and education and the military and science and technology who have banded together in a temporary but recurring civitas around the staging of outdoor drama “on the rocks” of John Henry’s magnificent hand-hewn amphitheater at Stone Hill.

That these good people represent an alpha-to-omega range of personal and political beliefs and yet function joyously in their temporary community is of particular note and merit in these times, and offers another piece of evidence about the civilizing power of theater. And another reason not to give up on either it, or our experiment in a democratic society.

I have had the pleasure of directing three of these works, dating back to Jim Reston’s taut historical epic “Galileo’s Torch, which was the inaugural performance in the space in June 2014. Last year Jim provided another trenchant (and surprisingly provocative) history play, “Sherman the Peacemaker,” complete with field artillery.

By Roger Piantadosi
Hundreds watched a full-costume, staged reading of writer James Reston Jr.’s “Sherman the Peacemaker,” at John Henry’s Stone Hill Amphitheater last June. Roger Piantadosi

This summer the stone-maestro himself, John Henry, entered the playwriting lists as the author of “Arguing with God,” a dramatic exploration of the Old Testament’s rather vigorous deployment of mass extinction, large-scale slaughter, territorial dispossession and other instruments of policy in the service of arbitrary power (represented here by a capricious but charismatic Yahweh), opposed with reason and passion by an outgunned Moses arguing for the supremacy of justice. Adam and Eve, meanwhile, long for a return to the simple pleasures of Eden, and the audience is asked to decide which is mankind’s proper destiny at the end of the show.

Each of the plays has taken on big, tough, problematic subjects, and the chance to work on them with the collective brilliant minds of the citizen-artists — and share them with the equally savvy audiences — of Rappahannock County has reaffirmed my faith in staying power of “The Fabulous Invalid.” We’ve created and sustained quite a convincing community.

In a bit of metaphysical meteorology that we are still trying to figure out, the original “on the rocks” outdoor performance of “Arguing with God” was rained out — twice — and so we pulled it into the friendly confines of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in June for a trial run. But the play was written by the master builder of the amphitheater expressly for that magnificent space, and so we are proposing to tempt fate once again with a full outdoor staging at 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11 at the Stone Hill Amphitheatre. No rain date this time. Alia jacta est.

Tickets are $20 at the door or available at Parking and children’s attendance free.

Rick Davis, who lives in Warrenton, heads George Mason University’s performing arts department.

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