Just Desserts

Grace Here.

Is there anyone else out there who feels oddly guilty at the sight of a Thanksgiving table?

I may be overstepping the norm of Jewish guilt here, but something about the heaping platters and steaming kitchens is as chastening as it is appetizing.

It’s like this: Thanksgiving is all about gratitude—reflecting on all the wonderful gifts that you’ve been given: friends, family, loved ones, and pumpkin pie. It really is an embarrassment of riches!

Which can be sort of, well….embarrassing. Because (if you’re like me) then you start thinking, “Wait a second—do I deserve all this pie?”

Arthur Miller, evidently, is like me (at least in this respect).

Anyway, when his protagonist in After the Fall goes to the airport and sees the beautifully gleaming face of Holga (played by the beautifully gleaming face of Jennifer Mendenhall), he is the picture of gratitude, joy, and anticipation.

And then he starts thinking, “Wait a second (or several)—do I deserve all this love?”

In this dizzyingly unjust world, how do we accept bounty that we aren’t sure we deserve?

In After the Fall, Arthur Miller ripped his conscience (and his marriages) open and showed their raw, pulpy insides to a crowd of people looking for an answer.

Theater J’s production has produced some dramatic responses. Critics have shouted unanimous praise, and audiences are riveted. But the most dramatic responses came from the guests at Miriam’s Kitchen, a local “super kitchen” in Foggy Bottom.

Last Wednesday at 2:30, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (who plays Quentin’s glamorous but self-destructive second wife Maggie in After the Fall) sat with Catherine Crum (who is the glamorous and not-at-all -destructive Deputy Director of Miriam’s Kitchen) and me at a table with Miriam’s Kitchen guests Randy, David, Karl, Quincy, Ronald Reagan, Jim, and some more guests whose names I unfortunately cannot remember, discussing After the Fall. Several of the MK guests had seen the show the week before, and they left with a powerful connection to Quentin’s quest to discover whether he has lived a life he can be proud of.

“I don’t care how much of a man you are,” said Randy, “You’re going to shed a tear.” We talked about guilt, about remorse, about the part of our brain that endlessly traces roads not taken and wonders what might have been if-if-if…

We told stories of memories in which we aren’t sure that we acted rightly, and then acted out those memories using one another as scene partners. The nice thing about acting out memories is that you get a second chance.  One guest acted out the story of an annoying coworker. In real life, he had punished the coworker by getting him in trouble for an act that he didn’t commit. Yet when the guest reenacted the story, he dealt with the coworker by trying to reason with him, and ultimately buying him a beer. Another guest acted out the story of being apprehended by a policeman for trespassing, this time finding humor in what was at the time a grim experience.

In After the Fall, Quentin tries to look at his life unflinchingly, recreating his own actions without revision, in an attempt to take stock of himself and figure out whether he can ever deserve the gifts that Holga tries to give.  At Miriam’s Kitchen, we allowed revision, but the core question remained the same: “Have I lived well? Do I deserve the gifts I am given?”

Like Quentin, we hold our memories close, waltzing in circles, hoping to stumble across the answers. If we’re lucky, we learn something and move forward.

I can’t tell you about what Quentin learns from his investigation of his past, because that would be spoiling the ending of the play, and there are still six more shows before we have to say good-bye (This Sunday! Eeep!)

But I’ll tell you this: I am grateful to Mitchell, who has outdone himself in a feat of acting genius that people will remember for years to come. I am grateful to Gabriela, who not only shares her electric performance with the audience, but also shared her warmth and intelligence with the folks at Miriam’s Kitchen. I am grateful to the cast and crew of After the Fall, who joke and scream and bleed together to give us access into the brilliant mind of Arthur Miller. I am grateful to Catherine and all the MK guests for diving into After the Fall with open hearts.

And most of all, I am grateful to every person who comes to our home at the DCJCC and sits at our table to share in this magnificent theatrical feast. Happy Thanksgiving!

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