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Choosing Wisdom: Craig Lucas on The Book of Job

In 2009, playwright Craig Lucas confronted a dark moment in his life, and he began to read, looking for insight. “My attention was drawn to Erik Erikson’s writings on old age,” Lucas says. “His dictum is that, in old age, one has a choice between despair and wisdom.” As Lucas continued, an idea for a play formed: “Then I read the Book of Job — and a lot of other reading in philosophy and history — and it occurred to me that there was a way to deal with the questions that the Greeks talk about. What happens when human beings are confronted with what fate hands them? The Greeks would say, where man’s plans and the Gods’ cross, man always pays.” 

Lucas knew intuitively that exploring wisdom and faith necessitated a reliance on comedy and humor. “Drama is built on really bad things happening to people,” Lucas says. “If you’re at enough distance, it’s comical. If you come a little closer to the characters, then it’s drama. But then if you insert yourself wholly into it as an artist, into the characters’ flaws, then it becomes tragedy. I was actually interested in bringing all three together — tragedy, drama, and comedy — in one play.”

As the underlying themes of the play were forming in Lucas’ mind, he coincidentally saw the New York production of Nina Raine’s Tribes and became interested in working with actor Russell Harvard. (Harvard, who is Deaf, is also known for roles in the first season of “Fargo” and the film There Will Be Blood.) Lucas had incorporated ASL into one of his earlier plays, Reckless; he was excited by the possibility of further exploration. “There is an enormously inviting theatrical possibility to play with two languages on stage, one of which is visual,” Lucas says. “Frankly, that’s fun and interesting — so I met up with Russell, and told him I wanted to write a play for him.” With the actor in mind, the framework of the story began to take shape. Lucas recalls thinking at the time, “What if I created a character who has, through great struggle, discovered his strength through teaching American Sign Language? What would it mean for that person to not be able to do that anymore?” 

The character Lucas created is called Knox — Deaf, sober, an ASL teacher — and as the play begins, Knox has gathered with family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner. To that dinner, he brings a guy who has been living with him, Farhad. Farhad is a heavy drug user and, for a long time, homeless. Knox is smitten with Farhad and sees a glimmer of possibility in him. But after a tragedy that night, Knox’s family doesn’t know how to bring him back from the edge of despair. Can they save him? Can Farhad? Can some higher power?

"Drama is built on really bad things happening to people. If you’re at enough distance, it’s comical. If you come a little closer to the characters, then it’s drama. But then if you insert yourself wholly into it as an artist, into the characters’ flaws, then it becomes tragedy. I was actually interested in bringing all three together — tragedy, drama, and comedy — in one play."

In developing the story, Knox’s overlapping identities were critical to Lucas. “There’s a confluence between being Deaf, being gay, and being an alcoholic,” Lucas says. “They are three things which the larger society might view as limitations, if not disabilities, and three things which the play’s protagonist views as gifts. The difference between those two views — disability or gift — is the embodiment of the wisdom vs. despair choice.” At the same time, Lucas was keen to avoid depicting ‘perfect’ or ‘idealized’ characters. “There are quite a few communities dramatized in the story,” Lucas says. “Each of these groups has particular ways of speaking about experience when like-members are alone with one another, and ways they wish to see their demographic represented to the larger world. The play seeks to avoid handling the discrepancies between these two things with kid gloves.”

For the production at the Huntington, Lucas will also direct, finding the balance between the anguish at the story’s core and the incredible humor that lives on its surface. For the characters, and in turn for the audience, comedy unlocks the wisdom that lives inside the tragedies that befall us and underpins our grasping for faith. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, original author of the “Serenity Prayer,” writes, “Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies, with laughter, is a high form of wisdom.”

–      CHARLES HAUGLAND


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