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Essay

Everything Turns Away

By Sarah Lunnie, Literary Director

I learned recently that Lindsey Ferrentino can claim a family connection to W.H. Auden (her grandfather’s first cousin was Auden’s life partner), and found myself reflecting on his “Musee des Beaux Arts.” It’s a poem I think of whenever I’m clobbered by some private or public disaster and look around to find the world has not, in fact, stopped turning: 

About suffering they were never wrong,

The old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position: how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

I thought of the poem again the day after Christmas this year when, on our way to visit an old friend of mine from high school, disoriented on Connecticut back roads, my fiancé and I turned a corner and suddenly I realized where we were. 

It’s hard to think or speak of Newtown anymore without evoking darker connotations, the word itself now loaded with the unquantifiable burden of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Whereas, having grown up in the neighboring town of Monroe, the associations it conjures for me are mostly cozy and pedestrian: the diner off I-84 where, when both of us were home on break from college, an old boyfriend came out to me, saying out loud to me for the first time, over pancakes or eggs or burgers, what he knew I already knew; a now-shuttered bookstore in a strip mall on Route 25 where, in the early ’90s, I could usually wheedle my mom into buying me something new to read; the teen center where my friends and I occasionally gathered, trying to meet kids we didn’t already know in the hopes that something sexy might happen. (It never did.) 

“The flagpole!” I shouted that day in the car, pointing out a local landmark, almost comically large and looming smack in the center of a busy Main Street intersection. And there was Edmond Town Hall, where, when I was a kid, we went to see movies for a dollar, and where I once got scolded by an usher for throwing Junior Mints over the balcony onto the heads of the people sitting below us. 

I don’t share these memories to suggest that they are particularly interesting or important, but rather, because I know they are not. It was for this reason, I think — because the place is so specific, for me, and loaded with so many commonplace associations — that I experienced, in the days that followed the shooting at Sandy Hook, a particular quality of dissociation and disorientation; a cowed, confused struggle to integrate the unfathomable into my conception of a place that previously felt not just safe, but (and here, a privilege reveals itself) ordinary; an inability to square the horrifying information with the benign banality of what once felt like the truth. 

It’s a dissonance that Lindsey captures with extraordinary precision and sensitivity in This Flat Earth. Her play isn’t about Sandy Hook, but it does unfold in the aftermath of a school shooting in a quiet New England town. The play follows Julie, 13, as she tries to make sense of a world suddenly made strange by horrific calamity — a world that, in the wake of that calamity, seems to insist on reassembling itself and moving on. “Are you there?!” she shouts to her father as the play launches, frightened by the noises outside her bedroom. 

“I tend to write about a political issue that gets under my skin or that I feel numb to and don’t understand,” Lindsey said in an interview with The Pickwyck last year, anticipating a production of another of her plays, Ugly Lies the Bone, at London’s National Theatre. “The writing process for me is about erasing that numbness… Perhaps I won’t always work this way, but right now writing is about getting in touch with my own empathy as I try to understand the world.” 

This penchant for engaging big social questions in the context of intimately observed, character-driven drama reveals itself throughout Lindsey’s already substantial body of work. Ugly Lies the Bone, which premiered to acclaim at The Roundabout Underground in 2015 (when she was still a student at the Yale School of Drama), follows a wounded veteran who, newly home from Afghanistan and debilitated by third degree burns from an IED blast, struggles to navigate a difficult reunion with family and friends whose lives have proceeded without her. Lindsey sets the play in Titusville, Florida, at the end of NASA’s shuttle program, lending deeper resonance to the story of a woman who is fighting to let go of a past to which she can never return. Amy and the Orphans, which will premiere at the Roundabout in February this year, chronicles the loaded reunion of adult siblings with the sister they barely know, whose Down syndrome — or, rather, their parents’ anxieties in relationship to it — separated them for most of their lives. While the play is structured around the unspooling of intertwined, incisively observed portraits of very particular characters and family relationships, it also engages its audience in a critical conversation about ability and power, the often unspoken assumptions and value systems that order our public life, and the people and communities who may be disregarded in consequence. 

In these and other plays, Lindsey’s writing evinces qualities we at Playwrights, and audiences all over the place, are quickly coming to recognize as her trademarks: bright, crackling humor, often cutting against the grain of darker material; a keen ear for the subtle but potent ways that class informs relationships; and a yen for theatrical gestures that crack the world of the play wide open. With This Flat Earth, she turns her attention to epidemic gun violence. But, though the play hinges on a devastating (and chillingly familiar) act of destruction, its real territory of exploration lies elsewhere: in the complicated and evolving relationship between a single dad and his daughter; in the friendship of two young people whose sense of security has been threatened at bedrock; in the manic grasping of a mother grieving an impossible loss; and, above all, in the coming of age of a young woman inheriting a world in need of repair, who is beginning to comprehend — but not ready to come to terms with — the limitations and vulnerability of the grown-ups who surround her. 

In its expansive humanity, the play seems to affirm the utter meaninglessness of the cataclysm from which it proceeds — while also affirming Julie’s refusal to accept it. Her “Are you there?!” becomes, in its refrain, more than a child’s cry for comfort in the dark, a call to account, an entreaty to bear witness — even as the world sails calmly on.