Something Past in Front of the Light is “The Exorcist” for grownups. Playwright Kathleen Akerley’s genius script recognizes, as “The Exorcist” did not, that Satan (Alexander Strain), or “Stan” as he is familiarly called here, does not torment the innocent. To win Satan’s special attention you must invite him, as you must invite Dracula, into your house.
Richard Widener (Christopher Henley) invites Stan into his house – or his studio, in order to film a documentary on the life and times of the Prince of Darkness. To say the sentence aloud is to recognize how stupid and wrong such an idea is, and also how much money it will make.
Widener tucks into the project with gusto, hiring the amiable, if dim, British actor Michael Montague (Daniel Vito Siefring) to do the narration and engaging the tough-minded Jacob Pearson (Jason Lott) as cinematographer. Stan, who appears to be a connoisseur of absurdity, helps things along by supplying home movies, in which mom and dad (Stephanie Roswell and Carlos Bustamante) reminisce about bringing up Beelzebub, and the high school hottie (Ashley DeMain) humiliates Stan by telling someone else that he smells like her dog’s ass.
But make no mistake: despite his occasional wit, Stan is no cuddly Damn Yankees devil, nor is he the tough-but-fair negotiator of “the Devil and Daniel Webster” or even Faust. This Devil doesn’t bargain; he, like God, simply Is – “I am Who am,” as God said to Moses in the burning bush. He is utterly alien, and his reaction to the humans around him moves beyond contempt into a sort of physical illness; he twitches, heaves and gurgles in reaction to the things we say.
“…he’s got nothing in common with us….no purposes, no perspectives, not even the same linguistic structures that make up conversation,” explains Jacob, the most clear-seeing human character in the play. “A conversation between a human and the Devil would be like a conversation between a muscle spasm and a duck.”
Art, like philosophy, has real problems dealing with the Devil; and this may have less to do with the inability of our minds to teach than it has with the inability of our hearts to learn. We hate to hear that we do evil acts, or that those evil acts have consequences, including our just punishments. “[Y]ou wanted me to say that you were forgiven, absolutely,” God (Siefring) tells Detective Alan Fitzgerald (Bustamante), “and my refusal to do so feels like a punishment.”
So it is with all of us. The last play I saw to deal in a serious way with the Personification of Evil was Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. There, Satan, seemingly the most powerful personage in the courtroom drama, was not real. Instead, he was “conjured” by our unwillingness to accept grace, and the love of God. Or consider what Patrick Dunne, the literature teacher and lawyer, wrote in the Spring issue of Notre Dame magazine about the relief he felt when his confessor explained that his typical adolescent weaknesses would not earn him damnation.
Mortal sin, the priest told him, meant Evil. “And by Evil, he said, we mean the ways of men like Adolf Hitler, like Joseph Stalin, and the terrible men and women who worked with them. Evil meant delight in machine-gunning innocent villagers lined up in a field, joy in gassing naked Jews in the ovens of Buchenwald, in remorselessly starving slave laborers in the Siberian gulags, in complaining of writer’s cramp after scrawling ‘Shoot him’ on stacks and stacks of individual secret-police reports.”
It would be comforting if Hell was fictional, or empty of company except for Hitler and Pol Pot. But the moral universe of Something Past in Front of the Light imagines a more commodious Hades, filled with accommodators – men and women who find it expedient to negotiate with those who commit genocide, who kill their own people, who drain the environment of the possibility of compassion, who reduce human order to chaos. These accommodators, the “terrible men and women who worked with them”, may not have done evil themselves, but in their facilitation they made evil possible.
Men, in short, like Richard Widener.
It is impossible for me to overstate how good Christopher Henley is as Widener. The documentarian is a classic trimmer; his principles seem flexible because he has, in fact, no principles at all. Ironically for someone in his profession, he does not even have a clear idea of what truth is. “It’s a documentary about him,” he tells Jacob. “Not an exposé. I don’t want to tell some cultural bigger fake truth about him, I just want to tell his truth.” When the cinematographer objects that Satan is lying, Widener shrugs. “Everybody lies,” he says.
Everybody – or everybody except Jacob – lies or accommodates in this environment, anyway. The oblivious Michael chums around with Satan in the TV room, watching the execrable reality show “True Sit-Com” with him and inventing his nickname (“Stan” had revealed that the closest they could come to his real name was “Supreme Appetite of Pandemonium”). Two clownish sad sacks, the choleric D. Abolik (Jay Hardee) and the bland Floyd (Bustamante) lay nonsensical claim to Satanhood, and in so doing unintentionally underscore the legitimacy of Stan’s claim.
What powers them all, of course, is fear – fear, certainly, of Satan (once his true nature is clear beyond the power of denial), but also fear of each other, and of the world. They accommodate evil because they fear that if they don’t, evil will overpower them. Jacob, alone in his resistance, is a remarkable man because he is not afraid to spit (figuratively) in the face of Satan. In the Callan Theatre, Catholic University’s black box, it is impossible not to think of John Paul II’s first words upon assuming the papacy – “be not afraid” – when assessing the character of Jacob Pearson, who is saved from damnation because he does not fear it.
Widener is a remarkable man too, for precisely the opposite reason: he is oblivious to his own fear. He makes a little display over his insistence on including some footage Stan finds objectionable, and late in the play denies his fear to Jacob, but the whole of the play is Widener doing everything he can to satisfy Stan’s insatiable appetite, and finding excuses for Stan’s horrific acts. Henley radiates Widener’s self-satisfied self-justification beautifully, and makes the man’s hollowness and corruption a work of art.
Something Past in Front of the Light is as serious as cancer, and it would be easy to overlook how funny it is. But it is funny, in surprising and delightful way. The True Sit-Com episodes are hilarious, with outrageously goonish participants (Hardee, DeMain and Roswell). And Akerley, an admirer of Stoppard, stuffs her dialogue with Stoppardarian wit.
She is also, like Stoppard, a little opaque at times. (Satan’s mom makes a reference to “Maslow’s pyramid”; this is the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s 1943 theory of motivation, which identifies physiological needs – food, sleep and so on – as the most fundamental, and as they are satisfied goes on to describe the need for safety, belonging, esteem and self-actualization.) You will have to bring your best brain and most alert ears with you to enjoy this show, but if you do, you will.
I’m going to have to say this: the production is not as good as the play. Henley, as I said earlier, is superb, and Lott does very good work as the relentlessly honest and fearless Jacob. Jay Hardee, in multiple roles, also does some of his best work. But Siefring plays up the frivolous, self-indulgent side of Montague far too much for my taste, and does not allow us to feel the sympathy for him that it’s crucial for us to feel. Some of the supporting performances come up short as well, although I am compelled to note that everyone in the cast except the leads plays several parts, and each one does a good job with at least one role.
And what of Satan? From Akerley’s script, I recognize that he, far from being the romantic hero of “Paradise Lost” (or of the Mick Jagger song, or a hundred other sympathetic treatments in popular fiction), is the ultimate alien, the very center of fear and pain. Then why don’t I feel it from Strain’s portrayal? Strain, one of the ten or so best actors in Washington, has an extraordinary sense of evil’s fearsome potential – his Caligula, done four years ago on behalf of WSC Avant Bard, remains the milestone for portrayals of abuse of power. But here, somehow, he remains vulnerable, and hence, to a degree, sympathetic.
Part of this vulnerability is due to our own mythology, which is reinforced in the script. Dracula is vulnerable to garlic and wolfesbane and stakes in the heart; so here Satan seems vulnerable to a whole array of words and gestures. He cannot say the word “God” – he is compelled, as Jacob points out, to call Him “That”.
But there’s more in Something Past, and it may be because of choices made by Akerley, who is director as well as playwright. Satan has a whole panoply of bizarre reactions – belches, shudders, spasms, tiny shrieks – to human experiences, and they make him appear to be disabled. He seems to freak out when he hears Stone Sour’s “Bother”. I understand the point of making the Devil repelled to the point of insanity by human culture. But if we can have that effect on him, do we not to some degree render Satan unto our control?
Or: consider his costume (by Anna Lathrop). Satan appears barefoot throughout the play, in ragged jeans and a torn t-shirt. There is some sense to making the Prince of Darkness appear indifferent to clothing, of course; it would emphasize his contempt for the humans around him. On the other hand, if he fully expressed that contempt he would not be in human company at all; having chosen to be among humans, one would think, he should dress well, in order to make us feel bad about ourselves. Dressed as he is in Something Past, he seems less like the Supreme Appetite of Pandemonium and more like your hippie brother-in-law, the organic farmer.
Early in the play, someone interrupts him with a question during a rant. He says, “I feel very sure that’s the last time you’re going to talk during my narration.” The line should make us feel cold lead in our stomachs; after all, this is a creature who could fuse the jaw of the offending party – or our jaws, for bad thoughts. But what we see is a hippie of early middle years, prone to snapping and jittering at random. The audience reaction on the night I saw the show was that it laughed.
It’s not a bad production; the technical work (particularly Mark J. Wujcik’s set, which features an enormous TV, large enough for live actors to perform in) and Akerley’s staging are generally excellent. But the fictive dream does not quite match Akerley’s outsized vision of it.
See it anyway. Something Past in Front of the Light is more frightening than “Alien”, or “The Exorcist”, or “The Blair Witch Project” – because it’s real, and rather brilliant.
Something Past in Front of the Light
Written and Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Produced by Longacre Lea
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including one intermission