People— well, some, at least — bemoan the e-assault on the printed word.
Progress is making tombstones of tomes. It’s easy to believe that the days of Sunday newspapers waiting on doorsteps and magazine racks standing sentinel at checkout counters will soon pass into history’s mists. Before long, the librarian may meet the centurion on the junk pile of superannuated vocations.
Still, sports columns, novels, memoirs and the like continue to find readers, albeit on iPads and Kindles rather than on ink-freckled wood pulp. Poetry, however, faces far direr straights. Aside from the occasional poetry slam and the fact that the U.S. still appoints a Poet Laureate each year (currently Natasha Trethewey — I dare you to tell me you’ve heard of her), poetry seems to be fading from the collective cultural consciousness. It is sadly going gentle into that good night.
Why does this matter? Because poetry is more elemental than prose. It howls and screams, but even its whispers can rend the sky. For this reason if no other, There Is A Happiness That Morning Is is an extremely important play. It is a play about poetry that is also, effectively, a poem itself. The language, full of couplets and quatrains, feels almost Shakespearean at times. Its crafting, by playwright Mickle Maher, is nothing short of an artistic marvel. That such an ingenious piece of theater not only champions poetry but also plucks at the audience’s heartstrings and puts wide smiles on its faces qualifies this work as at least a minor miracle.
The play concerns itself with Bernard (Jeremy Make), Ellen (Amanda Berg Wilson) and Dean (Jim Walker). Bernard and Ellen are professors of poetry. They both focus on the works of William Blake, and they happen to be lovers. Dean is their boss and is currently at odds with the two educators for reasons that I cannot divulge but which drive the proceedings.
In a bit of deftly done and welcome role reversal, Bernard is the less-credentialed, almost debilitatedly love-struck and starry-eyed one in the relationship. Ellen possesses a Ph.D., a more practical worldview and a harder edge. She is, at times, decidedly angry and even defiant. The play tells us why Ellen feels as she does, but again, that is a secret I will not share as it is central to both character development and plot. What I will say is that Ellen and Bernard share an abiding, arresting and realistically complicated love.
The first half of There Is A Happiness That Morning Is features very little dialogue. Instead, Bernard and Ellen alternately expound and recite. In what are essentially a set of extended soliloquies, the lovers slowly illuminate the viewer on the beauty of William Blake’s — and Mickle Maher’s — poetry, the nature of their own relationship and the prime mover of the play’s plot. In the second half of the play, the two begin to converse more with one another and, later, with Dean. Throughout, the words they use and the images they convey are positively beauteous.
All three actors earned the rousing applause they received at the end of the performance I attended. Jeremy Make resembles, sounds, and even acts somewhat like a younger Will Ferrell, and if his work in There Is A Happiness That Morning Is is any indication, he could end up just as famous. Amanda Berg Wilson reminded me of Carla Gugino circa Sin City. She made me believe and feel Ellen’s every utterance. As Dean, Walker actually plays the most complicated and comical character, and he pulls it off with aplomb.
With There Is A Happiness That Morning Is the Catamounts have a rafter-shaking hit on their hands. Far more than a literary science project, this play unites poetry and theatre in a way I have never experienced before. It will inspire you. The only question is in what way, and to that question there are as many answers as there are members of its audience.