Attention, all ye parents of young children now pouring sweatily over your five-year-old child’s application to the day care center which will most help her get into the private school which will most help her get into the prep school which will most help her get into Harvard: Bob Clyman has your number.
The Exceptionals, his sweet and funny, brilliant and incisive play now getting a wise and committed production under director Tracy Brigden’s hand at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, W VA, has taken note of your competitive longing, and has let it play out, gracefully and compassionately, to its logical conclusion.
Gwen (Rebecca Harris) and Allie (Anne Marie Nest) are mothers whose five-year-old sons were fathered from sperm donated by high-IQ men. The children are – exceptional. The mothers are pretty sharp cookies themselves. Gwen, a clenched fist of a woman, is separated from her PhD in molecular biology only by her incomplete orals. Allie has taken on the mien of a white trash-talker which almost, but not completely, hides the steel-trap mind behind it.
Allie, Gwen and their children are part of a longitudinal study of exceptional children run by the institute which arranged for them to be impregnated by the sperm of exceptional men. Thus, on the surface, the play seems to be about eugenics. But this is only the setting. At its heart, this is a story of the way parents long on behalf of their children, and how they pay when they get what they longed for.
Both Gwen and Allie longed to have children with exceptional abilities, and both got their wish. Now Claire (Deidre Madigan), a highly-placed official of the Institute, offers the possibility that young Michael or Ethan could attend an elite school designed for the most exceptional of the exceptional – only a dozen openings available. They would unquestionably have their minds stretched in this new environment (they’re bored in the elite schools they’re presently enrolled in.) But at the same time, it would remove them another step from the rest of us – the unexceptionals.
This is a particular problem for Allie and her husband Tom (Joseph Tisa), a dyslexic whose enduring impression of the super-sperm program is that it screens out dyslexics. Tom loves Michael, but he is intimidated by him – never more so when the five-year-old asked Tom for help with his homework, and Tom later discovered that the assignment was from months previously, and Michael had long mastered the work. As a child, Tom worshipped his father (also a dyslexic) as a god, but he knows that the time for the young powerhouse in his home to hold him in the same way, if it ever existed, has passed. Thus Tom and Allie now ask for the Institute’s help in siring another child (Tom is sterile) – this one being of ordinary abilities. Regrettably, the market for ordinary sperm has imploded, and the Institute no longer carries that line. Neither does anyone else.
The day the child exceeds his parents is a dilemma every parent hopes to face, but it is a hard one nonetheless, and has been for a while. Do you remember Huck Finn’s pa, who bellowed that if life was good enough without him going to school, he’d be damned if he permitted Huck to go? We want the best educations for our kids, but when they come back from school quoting Sartre and Kierkegaard at us, and giving us pitying looks as we fumble on our iPhones, we know that they are no longer truly our children because they are no longer truly children. When, as here, the moment arises before the child is five, he has barely had any childhood at all, and the parent has barely had a chance to be a parent.
The excellent cast wrings every bit of insight and wisdom out of this terrific script. Madigan as Claire carries the narrative weight of the play, as it is she who must propel the selection for the new school to its conclusion, and she who must respond for Allie and Tom’s quest for an unexceptional child, which she believes would be bad for Michael’s development (as well as to several other dilemmas which I have not detailed here.) She comes through beautifully – firm and commanding when she needs to be, compassionate otherwise, and always authoritative.
Harris and Nest are similarly fabulous. Harris’ Gwen left her oral exams when a panic attack made it impossible for her to breathe easily, and Harris has seized on this to define her character physically; we know Gwen’s emotional state through her breath, and not merely through her dialogue.
Nest, who has played at CATF before, gives us a subtle, multi-faceted, layered Allie. You can see her brashness, but also the intelligence behind the brashness, and the anxiety she feels about revealing how smart she really is. Tisa as Tom entered on stage a little more bumptious than I thought credible (and part of the problem may have been Clyman’s unusually weak dialogue at that point) but by the second Act I found him believable, and sympathetic. His apogee occurs when he compares the tandem laughter of Allie and Michael to his favorite song, sung in stereo – and we see a man in love not only with his family but with his life as well. May it happen to all of us.
By Bob Clyman
Directed by Tracy Brigden
Produced in the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including one intermission
Highly recommended – Exceptional!