MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Returning to campus for the first time in nearly 15 years, award-winning poet and playwright Dan O’Brien ’96 had quite a bit to unpack during a two-day visit last week. There was reconnecting with old friends and mentors; surveillance of former haunts–some changed, some identical to the way he left them a decade-and-a-half ago–and a deconstruction of his early “difficult life,” presented to rapt audiences on consecutive afternoons in the Axinn Center’s Abernethy Room.
Much of O’Brien’s recent work is drawn from real life—his own and that of his contemporary muse, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Watson. In his debut poetry collection War Reporter (2013) and the prize-winning play The Body of an American, O’Brien has rendered Watson’s harrowing experiences of international combat zones on the page and the stage to great acclaim and effect. Yet it is his own life that has provided O’Brien with some of his richest material.
Beginning with the poetry collections Scarsdale (2015) and New Life (2016) and continuing with the forthcoming play The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage, O’Brien attempts to better understand his estranged family, a cast of characters as bizarre, brutal, and pitiful as any found in a Coen Brothers film.
In poetry, the people and events of O’Brien’s life are at a veiled remove. Even when he’s speaking the words in an intimate setting, such as the Abernethy Room on a Thursday in mid-March, there seems a safe distance between what he is describing and where an audience is sitting.
|Dan O'Brien and Alex Draper give a reading of "The House in Scarsdale" at the Abernethy Room on March 17.|
This was not the case the next day, when O’Brien was joined by theatre professor Alex Draper ’88 for a reading of The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage (alternate title, O’Brien quipped, “The House in Scarsdale: Too Much Information”). It’s 90 minutes of devastation and revelation, the audience basically eavesdropping on a series of conversations between O’Brien and members of his family.
For the past six years, the playwright has been interviewing family members—at least those who will talk to him—attempting to discern “What was wrong with us?” The dialogue in the play is drawn from these conversations, and the reading at Middlebury unfolded much the way the production will: a spare set with a pair of actors, one playing the part of “Dan,” the other a rotating cast of family members, as well as a private detective and a couple of psychics.
Roughly a dozen scenes in all, the play sets hearts pounding and drops jaws, while prompting equal measures of gasps and laughter (though not always of the jovial variety). At the end, one wants nothing more than to applaud the work and then to envelop the writer in a giant, therapeutic hug. And at least on this day, with O’Brien in the presence of friends, mentors, and strangers alike, that’s exactly what happened.
The House in Scarsdale will debut on April 27 at the Boston Court Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, California, and will run until June 4.
Reporting by Matt Jennings; photos by Todd Balfour