Kate Abbott: Theater blends minds and hearts


Coming back through the mountains yesterday in the summer evening, between sunlight and heavy cloud — like the skies in the Van Gogh paintings opening at the Clark Art Institute this weekend — I was listening to the ending of one of my favorite novels.

It came up two weeks ago at a rehearsal of "The How and the Why" at Shakespeare & Company, and as I read about local theater today, I am thinking of it again.

Dorothy Sayers' "Gaudy Night" finishes on a summer night in the quiet after the thunder. It's a mystery set in a women's college not long after the women Ventfort Hall honors this week raised thousands of dollars and sailed overseas to help refugees and children in World War I.

In Sayers' day, women had only recently begun to earn university degrees in England. She writes about women finding a balance between work and love — at a time when women could choose to work, and the choice was new.

It's a debate and a challenge Mira in "Noms de Guerre" would find familiar, at WAM Theatre this week. So would Edith Wharton, writing as a war correspondent behind the front lines, as the Ventfort Hall talk will show. And in fact so would Zelda and Rachel in "The How and the Why," an evolutionary biologist and an anthropologist high in their fields — and Sarah, the photojournalist covering the Iraq war in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still" at Oldcastle Theatre — and Esther too, I think , Lynn Nottage's seamstress in "Intimate Apparel" at the Dorset Theatre Festival ...

The theme recurs. But reading about 'Noms de Guerre" today brought me up standing. Christina Gordon, who will perform as Mira, praised playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton for the depth of her character, and for recognizing that an ambitious woman can be compassionate as well.

And I think Gordon is wise. But do so many people really believe ambition and compassion are opposites? Reading this story a few pages away from Wharton, the Pulitzer-prize-winning novelist, working for war orphans and veterans, I want to think it's clear how often ambition and compassion go together. But looking at our local theaters, at the tensions these plays find on this theme, I wonder.

Ambition is "a strong desire to do or achieve something requiring determination and hard work" (I quote from the dictionary.) Compassion is to feel someone else's pain and want to do something about it. They are purposeful calls to action.

The most ambitious people I know are also the most compassionate. And a woman who wants to do something worth doing, to make a difference in her world, is both. In these stories playing out around us in the summer dusk, I am looking for that recognition.

Work and love can take care to balance, and some kinds of work take intense time and dedication — Mira's political campaigning, Sarah's photojournalism in a conflict zone. I don't say it's easy. And if something internal or external slams into the scale, it may take pain and effort to resettle the balance.

But that does not mean that the balance shouldn't exist. A whole woman can love wholly. I think of Rachel in "The How and the Why" who struggles because the man in her life will not let her extend herself fully. That element in him is not love, and compassion on her part for him would know it.

The qualities that lead someone to fulfil an ambition — that determination, stamina, imagination and grit — they're the qualities that lead people to love long and well.

I'm full of that certainty because I've just spent a week celebrating it.

Falling in love is a high ambition. I've just returned from a wedding, the first in my immediate family, between two of the brightest, warmest and most hard-working people I know. My sister flew in from her medical residency, as her husband moved between computer programming and burnishing the ceremony. And if you had been there listening to them, putting irises in mason jars, fencing with sparklers on the lawn — if you had heard them — you would know it just as sure.


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