Six feet over
High Island on Galveston Bay is just a stone’s throw from where a massive oil pipeline leak is strangling the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the fishing industry and bird and marine wildlife.
“It’s one of the prime spots for bird-watching in the country — less than 30 miles from the Louisiana border,” playwright Damon Falke said when Pasatiempo reached him by phone last week at a bookstore in Marshall, Texas. “High Island Cemetery is basically the place I have in mind.”
That cemetery is the setting for Falke’s play The Sun Is in the West, a new work to be presented this weekend by Santa Fe Performing Arts in a co-production with the Colorado-based Square Top Repertory Theatre at The Armory for the Arts Theater. The play is a mood piece in which three isolated characters reflect on the incidents, loved ones, and memories that make up who they are and where they have been.
Why a cemetery? “I see it as a good place to be quiet,” he said. “I live next door to a cemetery. I watch people all the time walk up there just to be quiet, and the way the world is now, it’s probably the only time in their lives when they can be quiet.”
The characters in the play are a photographer (Felicia Meyer), a historian (Geoff Johnson), and the groundskeeper (Sean Downing). They share the stage with a guitarist (Dave Seaton), who strings the play together with musical interludes. The characters keep to themselves, as people are apt to do in such places. Falke discussed how the separate roles function in the play.
“The groundskeeper is willing to come settle himself in his memories,” Falke said. “He knows what he’s held on to is valuable. The photographer [a young woman who has lost her parents in a highway accident] is less confident. And the historian is in the middle. He’s beginning his search of what’s valuable, digging out the facts, so to speak.”
There’s no specified action in the script. Falke has written only the words his characters say, without stage directions or description. On the printed page, we only know we’re in a graveyard by what the characters tell us. “I put absolutely nothing in it other than the words,” the playwright said. “I think that leaves it very much open for the director and whoever is involved with the play to have their own artistic experience producing it.”
There’s also no dialogue. The play unfolds in a series of alternating monologues in which the characters reminisce and explore their lives. There’s an elegiac quality, a sense of looking at the past to make sense of the present and to prepare for the future.
“Looking backward, the way my characters do, you have this summary of where you’ve come from and what has made up your life,” Falke mused. “I think you can piece all those different parts into something whole, and you can be comfortable with what you’ve become. But what I’d like to believe is that at the end of it, there’s a kind of leaning, that what you have held on to has in some way made you whole. You can lean forward by leaning backward.”
Recently, the Texan visited an old friend who is dying of cancer. “The last hour we spent together, we looked at pictures of his mama and daddy,” Falke said. “I think he looks at them and says, ‘ These are the people I loved; I hope they have filled my life, and ... I can look back at them and feel at peace with who I am.’ I find that very moving.”
For Falke, preserving things is crucial. “I’m always interested in what a person can save. Facts sometimes can be a little limiting. They can put a limit on who we are; they can contain us more than we want to be contained. It’s a question that stirs in me: What can we save? A good anything tends to resonate, tends to spiral out a bit, you know what I mean? If you look at a pottery chip from Chaco Canyon, it can be a couple of things. It can be a pottery chip, with markings on it that reflect a certain period and a particular culture, or it can be made by someone, and who knows how they made it and what they were thinking when they made it.”
The Square Top Repertory production of The Sun Is in the West in Santa Fe is a homecoming of sorts for several of the parties involved. Square Top’s producing artistic director, Charles Pepiton, and his wife, public relations and marketing director Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton, met in Santa Fe some years ago. Charles has directed this production, and Rebekah designed the set, exercising her imagination on the descriptive tabula rasa of Falke’s script.
“She’s created a set that sort of does what the text does, except it does it visually,” Pepiton said. “It’s incomplete without the text and without the performances. It’s theatrical, something that only live theater can do. It’s definitely restrained — it’s minimalist. The design is sand, an old chair, and three panels that are sort of a Pop-art triptych.”
Falke is a graduate of St. John’s College. He has never seen one of his plays fully mounted on a stage, but he’ll get his chance this weekend when he comes back to his old college town. “One of my old professors at St. John’s used to write stuff and just stick it in a drawer,” Falke said. “It would be nice to have that kind of artistic indifference, but I guess I don’t. I guess I really do hope people like it. I want it to strike a chord; there’s no shame in that.”
Santa Fe Performing Arts has a history of putting on new plays. “We’ve had a commitment to new plays for many years,” said Nicholas Sabato, head of Santa Fe Performing Arts. “We’ve been doing them since we were in our old space — a good 16 years. When Charlie contacted me about this play, we were excited to co-produce it because of that commitment.”
On Square Top’s website, there’s this bit of descriptive prose: “The production blends Old World story-telling while exploring the boundaries of modern theatricality.” Asked what the boundaries of modern theatricality were, Falke laughed. “That’s not a good question for me; that’s not anything I would say, because I’m not certain what that is. I’m pretty down to earth.”
Ground level is a good perspective to have, when a lot of your subject matter lies six feet beneath it.
Leading a cemetery life: from left, Felicia Meyer, Sean Downing, and Geoff Johnson