A new play by David Budbill

The cast of "A Song for my Father" at Lost Nation Theater. Photo by Francis Moran Photography

by Bethany M. Dunbar, April 29, 2010

When I was in junior high at Craftsbury Academy, a poet came to our school to get us started writing poetry and thinking about poetry in a different way.  The poet was David Budbill of Wolcott, and his poems were gritty tributes to real people — our neighbors in fact.

These poems were so real and raw that they freaked people out.  There was a poem about a pissing contest between two boys trying to hit the highest branch on the tree.  There was a poem about the two mentally disabled guys who walked on the side of the road together every day.

They were poems about survival and chain saws and neon beer lights in the window of the store.

Parents objected.

Pretty soon we had a whole downright town fight about it.  I’m proud to say that my dad, Addison Merrick, himself a poet who taught English at Johnson State College, stood up for David, the program and the poems.

The whole thing certainly made an impression on me, and I have been a friend and fan of David’s ever since.  So I was pretty excited to hear that he had a new play out.  It’s at Lost Nation Theater in Montpelier, and it’s called, “A Song for my Father.”

It’s real and raw.  It’s about struggles and guilt and hope and disappointment and resentment.

It’s wicked powerful, and I highly recommend that you go see it.  I am posting my review here along with an interview I did with David.

If you have seen it, I’d love to hear what you thought — post me a comment here if you are in the mood.

New on the Chronicle’s web site are bonus photos of events we have covered that we can’t fit in the paper.  We’re going to start running these each week.  I hope you’ll take a look.  Thanks.

“A Song for my Father” is brilliant, powerful and uncomfortable

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, April 28, 2010

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Don’t go to see “A Song for my Father” if you are looking for an evening of light or mindless entertainment.

You will leave the theater emotionally drained and yet weirdly hopeful and wanting to talk to your father, or your son, or anyone else in your life remotely resembling a family member.

David Budbill’s new play is brilliant and powerful and explores areas within difficult relationships that people often don’t want to explore.

The play is a tribute in a way, but it’s not a comfortable thing to watch.  It’s about a father and son who try to connect but have trouble despite their best intentions and the fact that they love each other deeply.

Randy Wolf, the son, has a refrain he seems to keep using.  He was trapped by circumstance.

His father is too.  Aren’t we all?

And yet the circumstances that trap Randy are less severe than those his father, Frank, endured.

Frank is a streetcar driver in Cleveland, Ohio, who gave his son a better life than he had for himself.  He made sure his son got a high school and college education.  A tea-totaller, Frank spared his son from the rampages of an alcoholic father that he suffered as a child.  Young Frank quit school in seventh grade to support his mother and three sisters.

And while Frank is proud of his son, he doesn’t understand him and resents him.

“All that pride and self-esteem floated on a sea of rage,” says Randy.

The most intense scene in the play comes when Randy challenges his father to do some role-playing.  He suggests that Frank play the part of his own father, and Randy will play the role of Frank as a child.  Frank’s father is coming home from a three-day bender.  His mother tells young Frank not to say anything, but even so, his father sees the look in his wife’s eyes and loses it, taking out his own unhappiness with himself on his wife and son, beating his wife.  Young Frank attacks his father, and the two end up on the ground, wrestling.  Frank (playing his father) is screaming and crying.

Randy tries to call it off, but it’s too late.

“I need to hurt somebody.  Why do I always have to be the good guy?”

Frank does hurt somebody, but not by attacking him physically.  He insults his son’s decisions in his life.  He doesn’t like his clothes, wonders what kind of a trade is poetry and what kind of a place to live is Vermont?

Precious, smug, clean, and self-righteous, he says.

“You know philosophy and poetry, but you don’t know a sheet metal screw from a wood screw,” he says.

“I keep telling you, I’m no suit,” is Randy’s reply.

“A Song for my Father” tackles these serious questions not only with dramatic intensity but with humor as well.

Frank is a flirt, and his attempts to get his nurse into bed with him at the end of his life are classic.

“Flirting and squirting are not the same thing,” he tells his son.

When Randy’s mother dies, Frank remarries, a woman named Ivy.  Ivy is played by Ruth Wallman, the same actress who played his mother.

When Randy first meets her, he is astonished and remarks that she looks just like his mother.

Photographs of Cleveland in the 1940s are projected in the background.  Frank reveres the industries there and challenges Randy’s idea of the meaning of the word pollution.

The cast of this show is spot-on.

Robert Nuner as Frank is perfectly prickly, proud and classy, even when he is suffering dementia.  He makes a cheap cigar and a lawn chair look better than a golden throne and caviar.

John Alexander plays Randy and doesn’t even seem to be playing a part.  He seems to be telling a story from his own point of view, including his respect of his father, his frustration, his desire to understand and appreciate his father, and his wish that his father would understand him.

Tara Lee Downs is just right as Nurse Betty, putting up with Frank and even becoming his friend.  You have the idea Nurse Betty might have been rooting for Frank a little when he peed on the bushes at the nursing home.

Ruth Wallman is great as Ruth, Randy’s dead mother, and as Ivy, the new wife.  Her performance of the scene when we are introduced to Ivy as she telephones a friend describing how the Lord took the steering wheel to guide her through the fog one evening is just fantastic.

Congratulations to David Budbill and Lost Nation Theater.  This show runs through May 9.

Budbill discusses “A Song for my Father.”

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, April 28, 2010

WOLCOTT, Vt. — The father character in David Budbill’s new play, “A Song for my Father,” is based on the author’s own father, who died more than ten years ago.

The play explores the tension between a working class father who drove a streetcar in Cleveland, Ohio, and a college-educated poet son who lives in Vermont.

In an interview Monday, Mr. Budbill said he did not actually grow up in Cleveland.  He left when he was ten years old.  And his father did not actually hate Vermont, but many aspects of their relationship are reflections of his own.

Asked if he could have written this play while his father was still alive, he said no.

“I wouldn’t know enough.  I wouldn’t feel enough.”

He said it’s not that he would not feel free to express all that, but he needed more time to understand it.

Mr. Budbill said so far, feedback from people who have seen the play has been all good, without exception.  He is surprised at how many people who see it tell him about their own relationships with their fathers or similar experiences.

Asked how he managed to write something so universal, he said, “I had no idea it was as universal as it is.  I was just telling my story.”

He said it’s a good example of the fact that, as a writer, in order to be universal you have to be specific.

Mr. Budbill said after four nights, the play is already changing.

“Plays are like kids.  They grow up,” he said.  “As they get older, they get more mature, and they understand themselves better.”

The play will be on the Lost Nation Theater stage through May 9.

Mr. Budbill said he is famous for driving actors crazy by tinkering with the play and rewriting it after they have already memorized their lines.  This time he promised not to do that, but he’s got ideas for changes that might be made at some point.  He’s working on four monologues by Randy, the son.

Andrew Doe is the director, and Mr. Budbill said he and Mr. Doe knew who they wanted to play each of the five main characters, and they were lucky enough to get these exact actors and actresses to take it on.  One is from Burlington and one is from Grand Isle, so the time commitment on their part is huge.

“I’m delighted with the production,” he said, and he considers the intimacy of the setting at Lost Nation Theater exactly right for this show.

Asked if he would be the same kind of poet if he had stayed in Cleveland, he said he has wondered about that for a long time.

“I think I would have been a poet similar to the kind I am now, but I don’t know,” he said.  One thing would be the same.  “I certainly think I would have been a poet of the working class if I lived in Cleveland.”

Mr. Budbill said his own father wanted to live in the country and dreamed of having a chicken farm.  He used to visit his son in Wolcott fairly often and would sit on the front porch, look out at the view, and say, “You’ve got it, Bud.  You’ve really got it.”

That scene shows up in one of Mr. Budbill’s poems.

“In a very serious way, my life is a fulfillment of his dream,” he said.

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One response to “A new play by David Budbill

  1. Great piece on the Lazors, Bethany. I visited Jack and Anne’s farm some time in the early 90s when a student of mine was working there. We got a modest tour. What they have managed to do up in Westfield stands as an admirable example to ambitious, if struggling, small farm operators all over the country. It’s wonderful to give them such attention and publicity. (Just had some Butterworks vanilla yogurt and blueberries for breakfast!)

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