In the days and weeks after 9/11, walking around town felt like a small act of boldness. You didn’t know if more attacks were coming. Every truck and building presented another likely bomb sighting or possible strike. Everywhere you looked, you imagined a potential enemy hiding or lurking somewhere. A taxi ride was more than anyone could handle, and a plane flight? Forget about it.
Each morning, as I emerged from my car and walked across the parking lot and into the classroom with my five-year-old, I felt a tiny surge of apprehension and also, relief. But all the time thinking, “When would the next strike occur?”
Everybody has a story about 9/11 and “The Duration,” a play by Bruce Graham, which made its world premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks last Friday, resurfaced many sad memories. “That was intense,” a woman said as she exited the theater. And I can just imagine the conversation in the car on the way home.
Directed by J. Barry Lewis, the play showcases a small but talented cast. Elizabeth (Beth) Dimon plays Audrey Botten, a noted historian, history professor, writer, mother, a widower. She’s smart and sarcastic, the kind who always has the answer to everything. She’s known as someone who has met the world with her head, with knowledge and facts. And now, she’s in the middle of something she can’t figure out with her head. Her husband of many years has been killed by a drunken driver. But as tragic as that sounds, that’s not all. Her beloved son Eddie was one of the victims who died in one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.
The play starts just two weeks after Audrey lost her son. So, the pain, unbelief, hatred, and sadness are all pretty raw. She takes herself up to a cabin in Pennsylvania to deal with it all. Her daughter, Emma, played by the beautiful and talented actress Caitlin Duffy, who makes her PBD debut, can’t understand why her mother, this picture of perfection and academia, has abruptly disappeared. Finally, she finds her location and comes up to see her. Audrey doesn’t want to face the grief and doesn’t even allow her daughter to face hers. As Eddie’s twin, Emma’s living her own profound grief and her mother is unavailable.
Back at the Catholic university, where Audrey taught, is her friend and department head, Douglas Kelly, played by John Leonard. He can’t understand why her friend, the staple of stability, was standing in the copier room one minute and gone the next. He eventually finds her at the cabin, where they have a telling conversation where he proposes two options: take a sabbatical or the necessary time off and come back next semester. For the moment, she declines both. She reveals to Douglas that religion is partly at fault for all the world’s problems. It plots and tells lies to get what it wants. Where’s God in that? She asks. Douglas points out that the problem lies in that she’s an atheist working in a Catholic university. Where’s her faith? He asks. She responds by telling him that there’s an enemy within that we can’t escape. And that frightened her terribly. She saw herself fighting the urge to hurt the young Muslim woman who was standing at the copier in front of her that day. Which is the reason why she escaped and came to the cabin, in the middle of nowhere.
While fear is a portrayed theme, grief is one of the most obvious and much-discussed topics in the play. Audrey and Emma’s characters are experiencing the deepest kind of grief there is—that of a mother losing a son; a sister losing her twin brother. When you have your own misery, Audrey explains, it’s difficult to be able to allow other people’s pain because you don’t have the energy for it. You’re so smacked down dealing with your own sorrow that you can’t see past it. As a mother, Audrey doesn’t have time to give her daughter the attention she deserves. She keeps telling her daughter, “You’re fine, you’re fine . . .”
Through her tenacious whim, she’s bound to make her daughter fine because she can’t afford to have another child hurt. She’s lost one already. So, the only way she can cope is by denying the pain that’s consuming her.
Graham has a particular talent for uncovering his characters’ secrets with funny, sad, and impactful scenes. In the end, the story unfolds happily, coming to a place where there’s hope.
“The Duration” is a smart play, which draws a fascinating parallel between 9/11 and the Covid-19 pandemic. In the last two years, we’ve lost so much that it is easy for these actors to feed into that. As an audience, this play takes us back to 9/11, and how we collectively hurt, and now we are doing it again.
Graham’s ultimate theme shows how the pandemic of 2020 – 2021 has become this generation’s 9/11. And this play shows how in both instances there is an endless supply of unknowns—leaving us with an enemy without definition, without end.
The playwright’s brilliance is manifested in his ability to create dialogue that is real, touching, and witty. But, it is in his development of Audrey’s character where his talent shines. It is enthralling to watch how he takes this extreme liberal who has always had one way of thinking – not considering the other side – suddenly making a sharp pivot, analyzing both. In the very first scenes of the play, Audrey’s transformation gives us a clue of what’s to come. She comes to the cabin and she finds herself listening to Fox News. For a liberal, that’s pretty extreme! You see her handling a gun for the first time, and finding pride and power in shooting an invisible enemy—protection she wishes she’d been able to provide for her son.
There’s a line in the play where Audrey says, “Open-mindedness is really easy in theory until you’re snapped by something like this.” And there lies the beauty of this play. Prompting the audience to think, to break barriers, to open their eyes, and to love one another without prejudice of any kind.
The climax of the play is the point at which the playwright shows us that, for all the world’s evil intent, tragic events can lead us to a smarter and hopeful future.
After all the Zoom and Netflix we’ve watched, it is time for people to come together as an audience again to see this play. Finding the courage to want to be back in the theater in person to experience something marvelous is a good thing. To breathe together as an audience is very healing, too.
Even though this is a story about 9/11 and a story about grief, it’s also a story about hope. Graham has constructed a free-form narrative in which he pokes, prods, and molds the characters in this play to get through it and come out fine on the other side. It’s not tied with a nice little bow, but neither is life.
“The Duration” is playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks until March 6, 2022. To buy your tickets, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.com or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. PBDW is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, Florida.
Review: “The Duration” playing at Palm Beach Dramaworks