A few blocks away from the legendary Carnegie Hall and on the same street with the renowned Broadway’s Studio 54 and Feinstein’s/54 Below lives “The American Theatre of Actors,” founded 42 years ago by James Jennings, a true legend of theatrical art and love, the president and artistic Director of ATA who has nourished and produced the works of over 950 new playwrights over the past 42 years.
I went anxious and excited to meet this man of art that my twin daughters told me about enthusiastically after having seen one of his newest plays “The Angry Snowbird,” the night before, directed and written by the highly spirited and humble James Jennings himself.
Having worked with the likes of Elia Kazan, Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman, the founder of ATA James Jennings wrote and directed several award winning plays (“My Father’s House,” “The Funeral,” “Salute to Clinton,” “Blood Money,” “The Holy Junkie”) and mentored ten thousand actors from the start of their careers: Bruce Willis, Dennis Quaid, Dan Lauria, Kevin Spacey, to name a few. In spite of his credits and mentorship, he is one of the most hardworking and humble theatre presidents I have ever met in my 54 years of theatre breathing: from welcoming me downstairs at the entrance of ATA as a sweet guardian of art, to taking me two floors up to the Beckman’s theatre to light up the stage of his newest play and afterwards running with me around the 4 floors of his treasure-venue to show me each corner of his four living spaces: The Cullman Theatre, The Beckman Theatre, the Sergeant and the Garden Theatre where Shakespeare’s plays had had their settings from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Romeo and Juliet” to “Twelfth Night,” James Jennings set and directed all Shakespeare’s plays under his roof. Not to mention his out of the box theatre office, his atelier or labyrinth where all the posters of his 900 theatre representations have found space and which took my breath away in terms of how meticulously and lovingly they were exhibited and preserved throughout his memorable 42 years.
But now my focus is on James Jennings’ newly written and directed masterpiece play entitled “The Angry Snowbird” – a parable of healing and resurrection of the child within at an elderly age. The play depicts the conflict between the generations – the old and modern one, between the frustrated and annihilated Jake, masterly portrayed by the actor Dan Lane Williams, a former carpenter and builder of houses, and his cruel and untamable daughter Madison who believes that an injured man of his age needs not to bother her or her loving mother and wife Gwenda who suffers his nuisance. Hence Madison concludes that her father would be better off interned in a rest home. Gwenda, Jake’s devoted wife, impeccably interpreted by Patricia Hart, who is sublimely and highly emotionally plunged into Gwenda’s skin, gave me goose bumps of artistic joy.
Gwenda is the soul of “The Angry Snowbird.” She starts off as a “nagging wife,” exasperated by her husband’s demeanor and reluctance of helping her around the house (Jake had helped built houses for dozens of families and had taken care of their homes except their own,) but ends as the once loving and eager for adventure wife. Gwenda is the one who slowly realizes that her husband, who fell of the roof trying to take a picture of the sunset, needs to be given the gift he had been asking for: Jake wants to see and experience the places he has never seen before, to look at the stars and to camp, because more than his body and legs, his heart has been injured and is hungry for renewal, to be brought to life. Jake wants to prove himself that he is still capable of being young and doing the things that he once did and is convinced that “his injured car” is the engine that he needs to repair in order to take him away on his healing ride. When his wife, pushed by their daughter, gives Jake’s van away, her husband decides to live no more, and is brought down to complete silence, incapable of uttering a word as his purpose had been taken away from him.
The play’s increase is like a small invisible fire that burns and then bursts out as a volcano inside Gwenda and Jake’s hearts as well as inside ours. This is the angry old men era facing the angry young men movement.
The penetrating and powerful writing reminds me of the atmosphere set by Tennessee Williams, as well as the repetitive sentences a la Eugene Ionesco “I am pissed at…”
The social fury and agony of Jake, who is angry at society – at both Republicans and Democrats, wages and all faces, doctors and neighbors, at his house with all the corners and curtains ready to “rot him away”, is all cast upon God, who is the fourth invisible character, the “buddy” responsible for all Jake’s shortcomings, and yet the only one who can now help him. Jake’s working brain needs a “new container,” a new body equipped with the same swiftness as the speed of his thoughts.
The culminating point is when Gwenda chooses to be like God, wise and generous, to give her husband “the miracle pill”. When their daughter Madison storms in the house and demands her mother to call the five rest home numbers she had given to her a while ago, Gwenda realizes the injustice they are about to make. And so, she goes upstairs and instead of calling the rest homes she was supposed to, she calls a company that agrees to give them a new car—thus swapping their old broken car — a new RV that she plans to drive her husband in towards his dream destination. Gwenda’s tears spring from her eyes like a waterfall of love, confessing her husband that his cruel words and mumbling against her were Jake’s injury, which was talking instead of her husband’s mouth. Gwenda knows that Jake did not mean them, reminding her husband of the beautiful memories they had spent together and the ones that they are about to. “I love you, Jake” is one of Gwenda’s last powerful sentences that impel her husband to regain his VOICE, the child within. Jake is thanking his wife for bringing him back to life with her good news. Together, epically, they sing their memorable journey song that they used to sing in their young riding days: let’s go together, nowhere, together…while the screams and looks of their daughter Madison can no longer crush their love.
James Jennings (center,) actor Danny Aiello, Jane Culley (right,) Jessica Jennings (left)
Grid Modorcea, Doctor of Arts
Correspondence from New York