When my best friend stood with her sisters in front of the parish for her profession, the choir listed the saints she considered an inspiration, including Dorothy Day, who is not sainted yet. “They made an exception,” said my friend afterwards. Day is exceptional: she co-founded a movement that is still moving across the world, was listed by Pope Francis as one of four great Americans, and, most recently and curiously, was called a “great dramatic figure” by America Magazine. Part of the reason for this new honor is her portrayal in This Other Love, a play by Patty McCarty, enjoying its premiere at Acacia Theatre Company, where I am employed as Business Manager.
The story behind the play is receiving as much attention as the story of the play. This Other Love was submitted in 1994 and sank to the bottom of a pile until the Artistic Director and I uncovered it in a move just over a year ago. The top page was a cover letter with a phone number at the bottom. There was surprise on both ends of the line: me, that Patty’s number hadn’t changed; Patty, that Acacia still had her number. I complimented her on the lyricism of the play, how its style was reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. After we had settled the preliminary terms of a performance contract, Patty told a friend, who is head of a university theatre department in Kansas City. “22 years,” he exclaimed, “that takes the cake.” “So,” Patty concluded, in relaying this exchange to me, “I went out and bought a cake.”
Not everyone celebrated. Many people in the Acacia community legitimately criticized weaknesses in the script, potential directors declined it, some Catholics expressed dislike for Day, and very few actors auditioned. The Artistic Director and I questioned the decision. And I didn’t fully stop questioning until opening night.
At the blackout before intermission, I chased the director as she escaped into the lobby. “It’s the play we read,” I said to her, the first of an embarrassing number of times I started crying that night. Thanks to some good readings by good actors, the lines I had read before were reading me: “For every step we take towards God, God takes a dozen steps toward us”…“When my brothers were little, my dad bought them the biggest red wagon he could find. He said they needed something they could just barely move if they leaned into it. Sometimes I feel like that”…“Don’t get crosswise with God. You will lose”… “The church declared her a saint. Sure it did. Maybe it’ll do the same for you. But first you have to burn.”…“He’s giving you the opportunity to burn yourself up in an impossible cause and you can’t resist.”…“It won’t work any other way.”
I knew it wouldn’t work any other way, I had always known it wouldn’t, the rest was pretense, or rather past tense: a resentment of how I’d been made, or molded, until the resentment became entitlement, a permission to medicate through selfish behavior, until the entitlement became bereavement, a deep grief over the folly of my decisions, until the bereavement became repentance, taking the steps, barely moving by leaning in, getting crosswise with God, losing, and burning burning burning. Sometimes because I am called to. Sometimes because I want to call attention to myself. Most of the time, because it has a gospel logic.
The stage lights dimmed and the house lights rose, a reminder that there was a talkback and I was the facilitator. Taking to the stage, I invited Patty and the cast to join. There were questions asked, praises offered, memories shared. At one point, Patty remarked, “I don’t want to be anyone but me right now.”
Earlier, under the influence of doubt, I had diminished This Other Love to my best friend, who lamented missing it due to the beginning of her biblical instruction in Rome. Now I felt an urge to capture the play in my hands, like a firefly, and release its energy to her. Surely she would need strength for picking up the burden that is light, the burden of light. Surely we would.
“Moral grandeur is not a contemporary trait,” writes Margot Patterson. “Whether we watch depictions of her on stage or come to see statues of her in Catholic churches, Dorothy Day is going to haunt us. Like Antigone, her story makes us consider our ideals and how much we want to live them.”