Students, faculty and community members gathered on the grass outside Lower Herrick March 30 and 31 to watch the one-act play, “Icarus’ Mother,” directed by professor James Angell of the theater department. The play, which is ostensibly about five friends on a picnic, is an allegory for the threat of nuclear war.
Given the current presidential administration’s recent interactions with North Korea, Angell said the play was an important reflection on the current political climate and military tone. The play is a parable for the sense of helpless unease that comes with the threat of nuclear war, according to Angell.
“We’ve been inured to the circumstances we’re in,” Angell said. “And also we’re so absorbed with our devices that we spend a lot of our free time just in frivolous consumer stuff, we don’t have the free time we used to have, I think, to talk to each other. It’s very different today, and I think that’s sort of contributed to a little more fuzziness in how we react to things.”
Then 21-year-old Sam Shepard, renowned American playwright, wrote the one-act play in 1965, just 3 years after the U.S. was put in a state of dismay over the Cuban Missile Crisis. Angell said that he hopes that audience members are able to feel the play, instead of finding an intellectual reduction of it, as they watch the actors have an ordinary picnic at a firework show while strange, ominous events keep happening in the background. Audience members should feel a sense of unease and confusion similar to that of the characters in the play, according to Angell.
“[The threat of nuclear war] made people nervous in ways they didn’t understand were making them nervous,” Angell said. “So, what we see in the play is a picnic of five people, and it just seems like an ordinary picnic, everything seems fine, and in the background there’s all these things that they see possibly happening, we don’t exactly know what it is but it really seems kind of ominous, but we don’t know why.”
The play concludes with a lengthy monologue by Fran, played by London Murray (senior), after the characters witness a plane crash in the ocean.
“Especially at the end, the play gets very bizarre and seems like it can’t get any weirder,” Robert Turner (senior) said. “The character Fran’s speech at the end is shocking. In a way, it’s not unlike what I would assume someone would say if they saw a nuclear bomb explode. She can barely describe what she saw. The whole ‘nuclear bomb’ part is relevant in today’s news, unfortunately.”
The name of the play, “Icarus’ Mother,” is based on the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus. According to Angell, in the myth, Daedalus creates wings that allowed him and his son to escape imprisonment. Before flying, he tells his son that if he flies too close to the sun, the wax will melt, and if he flies too close to the ocean, his wings will get wet. Icarus flies too close to the sun, causing the wings to melt and then plummeting into the sea. There are some parallels between that story and the concept of man developing the massive invention of nuclear power, potentially abusing it and destroying lives, according to Angell. Angell said that to add to the enigma of the play, it is unclear who Icarus’ mother is.
“If you’re trying to actually find a logical parallel to things in Shepard’s early work, you’re going to be very frustrated,” Angell said. “It’s not that they might not exist, it’s that there’s no definitive answer to any of these things. And it’s that level of, you have to give yourself over to the experience of the play.”
The cast consisted of just five actors and actresses: Robert Turner (senior), London Murray (senior), Hazel Hering (senior), Will Canavan (first year) and Gabriella Weltman (first year). With such a small cast and a complex play, the preparation process was comprehensive.
“The rehearsal process had involved some crying, some rolling on the floor, some climbing out of imaginary elevators, some yelling at planes,” Murray said. “Before the last couple weeks, we focused on memorization and character work. Our director doesn’t like diving into blocking while actors still have scripts in their hands, so we had to memorize the script pretty quickly.”
Auditions began in January and were open to students across the college, regardless of their major. The theater department’s policy is to cast whoever they deem to be the best person for the part, irrespective of what their prior acting experience is or the subject matter they’re studying, according to Angell. For example, Hering said she is an economics major and had not performed in a show for two years prior to “Icarus’ Mother.” Turner, on the other hand, is a theater major who had worked with Angell in the past.
“I’m a theater major, so any chance I can to audition for something I try to take,” Turner said. “Way back in January, I auditioned, and I’ve worked with the director before, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear I’d be working with him again in another outdoor show.”
Angell came to Occidental after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts to act in a professional theater program over the summer and was invited to teach in 1991. He has been an adjunct professor at the college since 1998, while also working as a screenwriter. Angell wrote for “The Simpsons” and recently took a sabbatical while he wrote for a new Netflix show called “Disenchantment.” Angell said he enjoys both working in the entertainment industry and teaching in Eagle Rock.
“The thing that distinguishes Oxy from larger programs is that we kind of expect you to solve your own problems,” Angell said. “We try to teach you, okay here’s a problem, we’ll try and give you the skills to solve it, but you need to solve it.”
The play will be performed again May 18.