I didn’t move to Wyoming for the theater scene, but I was reminded this week of how seeing live actors on a stage immersed in characters and a story can wrap fingers around your heart and give it a squeeze, wherever you are.
Oakley Boycott and Gulshan Mia were on stage in “Chomolungma,” about a woman whose partner has perished on Mount Everest. They performed before a small audience at the Bhava Shala, a high-ceilinged space at Lander’s old Purina Mill on Main Street — a piece of real estate that has been remodeled into a useful little lodging, restaurant and arts venue.
“Chomolungma” is a short play written by Molly Jones, and produced by Jones, Boycott and Amara Fehring of Communal Pancake Performing Arts. The Lander performances were linked to the International Climbers’ Festival.
It’s an intense 15 minutes. Mia finds Oakley lying fleece-bundled on a bench in New York City. It’s winter, and she’s barefoot. She has a faraway look — way faraway, like Mars, which is one of the topics they talk about. And sometimes shout about. Their arguments at times seem trivial — what’s the proper Tibetan name for Everest, and how do we pronounce it? — and sometimes threaten to knock the planets awry, because this is about death and loss and the betrayal felt by those left alive and alone.
Before the show began, it was announced there was a mental health professional in the room in case anyone was overcome by their emotional response to the play. That seemed a little presumptuous; “we’re going to move you so much you may need a Prozac.” But in the end, it made sense.
When the play finished (I’m reluctant to say the story was over), the two actors sat on stools and asked the audience to converse. Ask questions, tell your own stories or share thoughts about what you’ve just seen. Not an uncommon event in small theater settings — and often, after a fraught drama, a relief to meet the actors relaxed and unburdened of the play’s angst.
But something more interesting happened after the curtain fell (metaphorically — there was no curtain, and there were no props but the bench) on “Chomolungma.” The emotions of the play seemed to deepen as the audience and actors stayed in place and talked.
Lander’s a small town (thankfully a small town with good restaurants and theater, such as Communal Pancake and the Wyoming Shakespeare Company), and like most small towns, we know almost too much about each other. Often what we say in public forums has a shared subtext in our shared private lives. When an audience member at “Chomolungma” speaks abstractly about the process of grief, we know that person suffered a tangible family tragedy years ago. We know that Boycott herself lost a partner, which she mentioned (without drama, I should add) in explaining some of the things she brought to the role.
It was significant, and surprising, that the emotional resonance among audience members seemed to swell after the performance, amplifying feelings evoked during intense moments of the play. Which suggests that we may need the cathartic power of theater more than ever at this particular moment. A moment in which everyone in the room but the actors wore a mask.
Personally, I think I’ve had it easy during the pandemic, compared to those who have endured it largely alone, or who have had to navigate a crowded urban maze of potentially infectious strangers. Lengthy periods of isolation can be creative opportunities for a writer, especially one who is at times a little too gregarious to get the work done. For some of us, too, privilege has made this easier to endure: I quarantined in a comfortable home with woods and stream and wildlife around me. I had laughter and comfort with my partner of many years.
But the evening with Boycott and Mia tapped a deeper vein. The losses I thought I had absorbed and processed — a brother-in-law, a beloved elderly aunt, the delayed grief of an old friend whose first lover passed away long after they had separated — were suddenly in the room. The feelings snuck up not at the natural moment in the play when the protagonist allows her pain to erupt, but afterward, surprisingly, as we talked about theater, and other things. Ghosts were among us, asking to be embraced.
Grieving is more than just acknowledging loss and thinking it through. There’s a physical component, a chemical release of raw feeling. Zoom cocktail parties can be fun, but the physical separation imposed by the pandemic has kept much of our loss at arms length. This intimate, raw-nerve play, and the post-performance conversation, fit the moment.
So whether you dwell amidst the darkened marques of Broadway, or in a Wyoming town where the high school musical was cancelled, you might expect a similar jolt when the doors reopen. Live theater, the art of actors and a well-written play; I’m not sure we can live, really live, without it.