One actress, three characters, many questions, zero answers
On page 86 of the Midlothian High School library’s copy of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” there is, in the margins, in two different colors of ink, the following exchange of thoughts:
So — what’d you think?
The book. Did you like it?
The movie was better.
You should totally check out “Animal Farm.” It’s about communism — but with pigs.
The two young people corresponding in this irregular manner are (a) Julie Keady, 17, a bright and charming girl who’s been spending her lunch hours working on the commencement speech she’s to deliver a few weeks from now, and (b) classmate Mitchell Havermeyer, same age, a loner.
Mitchell is also a book reader. Among the novels he has devoured are “A Clockwork Orange,” “Naked Lunch,” “Brave New World,” “1984,” “The Dharma Bums,” “On the Road,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
Julie Keady knows this because she earns a little money stacking returned books back on the shelves of that library, but Mitchell Havermeyer doesn’t know that Julie’s the person with whom he’s been in frequent conversation in the margins of those and other volumes. He barely knows that Julie exists.
To Mitchell Havermeyer, Julie Keady is, or soon will be, merely a target — one of a great many others who will die at his hands one fine day shortly before graduation. Nor can we ever know what else Mitchell does or doesn’t know, because the last thing he does on That Day is place the muzzle of the gun between his teeth and squeeze the trigger.
Midlothian High School, and Julie Keady, and Mitchell Havermeyer and Julie’s mother and Mitchell’s mother are all the creations of a writer named Clay McLeod Chapman, as brought to the stage by an actress named Hanna Cheek in a fairly gripping piece called “The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement.”
To break that rather unwieldy title into two parts, there is the Pumpkin Pie Show series of plays (now entering its 15th year) and there is this year’s play, i.e., “Commencement.” Both are the dramatic output of Chapman — who says:
“A pumpkin-pie show is basically a Southern colloquialism for a group of farm boys sitting around a campfire, swapping yarns.
“The first Pumpkin Pie Show in New York was ‘The Birds and the Bees,’ during the very first New York Fringe Festival, and we’ve been doing it every year since.”
The inspiration, if you want to call it that, of “Commencement” was not the Columbine High School killings but the Virginia Tech massacre, one gunman, 32 dead, April 16, 2007, Blacksburg, Virginia.
“There was a lot of anger and resentment toward the mother of the shooter. The mother, poor woman, had her windows broken, stones thrown at her. There was a need for closure, but since the boy had shot himself, there wasn’t any closure. People reeling, but no closure. It was,” says playwright Chapman, “something I wanted to explore.”
The play is spoken by three women: Sarah Havermeyer, 41, mother of Mitchell Havermeyer; the 17-year-old Julie Keady; and Julie’s mother, Mary Keady, 47, who pays an unexpected visit to Mitchell’s mother just after the graduation where Julie’s name was, like so many others, never mentioned.
Chapman knew the actress who could do this. “I have to come clean,” he says. “I have to admit that Hanna really made that girl come alive.” That girl and the two mothers also.
Clay McLeod Chapman and Hanna Cheek first met as freshmen at Sarah Lawrence College in 1997 — “a performer,” he says, “much more talented than I was, and I’ve been exploiting her ever since.”
Hanna Cheek now lives — after a West Coast interregnum — in the same Chelsea brownstone in which she grew up as a kid.
Talent is in her blood. Her father is director and editor Douglas Cheek, her mother is costume designer Taylor Kincaid Cheek.
“I’ve been acting forever,” says their daughter. “I loved the school [Sarah Lawrence], but I started getting more and more auditions, and my professors said: ‘You know what? Go do it.’ So I went and did it — did lots of TV for a while. But I missed New York and the theater, and then Clay actually said: ‘What would it take to bring you back to New York?’ — and on September 10, 2001, I came back.”
For a Pumpkin Pie Show, naturally — the one titled “Rise Perverts Rise.” — and for many another Pumpkin Pie that followed.
Clay McLeod Chapman was born (September 26, 1977) and raised in Roanoke, Virginia. He too is an heir to talent. “Growing up, it was basically me and my mother, Sue Henshaw, a potter and ceramist. For us, one art fair after another.”
The Pumpkin Pie idea — as an idea — “sort of took off” his senior year in high school at North Carolina School of the Arts, Winsten-Salem.
It crystallized here in New York, when Clay had hunkered down at Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center (on Suffolk Street, Lower East Side) — where proprietor Ed Vega let a number of young people use the janitors’ break room as a stage.
“A bunch of kids with no place to stay, no money. And yet we had a show. So I lived there, ate there, slept there, performed there, the whole kit and caboodle.”
Out in Hailey, Idaho, there is a theater group called Company of Fools, and it is they, or it, that in fact commissioned the writing of “Commencement” as a work in progress. “We’re getting it up on its feet; see how it looks.”
By the way, the guy can write. Here is one vivid image: The speaker is Julie’s mother.
“I couldn’t stop myself from seeing them [the dead students, on graduation day]. Flinging their hats high, the air above our heads eclipsed in graduation caps — their edges as sharp as shovel blades.”
The two mothers and one daughter are, to Hanna Cheek, “very distinctive individuals, but I try to do it based on character rather than accents. What I love is that there is something powerful in the fact that they” — mother of the killer, mother of a victim — “are similar to one another.”
In actual life, she notes, “we never hear about the parents of the killers, but here we do. In Clay’s writing it’s about finding the humanity and struggle of the lot we’ve been given. ‘Commencement’ is a tragedy, but there’s buoyancy to it.
“Whenever a Columbine takes place” — or a Virginia Tech — “everybody asks: ‘How did that happen?’ There is no answer to it.” Then, after a very long pause: “It’s something that’s becoming an American epidemic.”
As American as pumpkin pie, you might say.
THE PUMPKIN PIE SHOW: COMMENCEMENT
Written by Clay McLeod Chapman
Performed by Hanna Cheek
A Horse Trade Theater Group production
At Under St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place, between First Avenue and Avenue A)
For tickets, call 212-868-4444