It’s strongly advised that you read the review of Shadowtime Productions‘ mounting of Wallace Shawn’s Obie Award-winning play Aunt Dan and Lemon beforehand for some context, as this interview with director Dan Spurgeon references specific scenes, plot points, and characters.
Back in 2015, I conducted a podcast interview with Spurgeon and producer Drew Blakeman during the run of their deliciously naughty version of The Baby, based on Abe Polsky’s 1973 screenplay, which was filmed by Ted Post, and has evolved over the decades into a genuine cult classic.
A year later the pair have returned with another dark work that bears more than striking parallels to the current political antics south of the border. Wallace Shawn’s Obie Award-winning play Aunt Dan and Lemon may have been written in 1985, but there are aspects which prove that good material and prescient observations remain timeless, and sometimes eerily contemporary.
Mark R. Hasan: Were you already familiar with Wallace Shawn’s play, and his background as a playwright of 13 works?
Dan Spurgeon: I first found this play in high school, after it made a splash in the West End and Off-Broadway in the mid-1980s. Shawn’s plays tend to be challenging for actors, directors and designers, so you don’t see lots of productions. Besides this script, I was most familiar with The Fever (2004) and The Designated Mourner (1997), as well as his co-writing and starring in My Dinner With Andre (1981).
Mark R. Hasan: I understand there have been several prior stagings of Aunt Dan and Lemon, and I wonder if they retained Shawn’s original design of several actors playing different characters, as Shadowtime’s production sounds like it’s among the most faithful?
Dan Spurgeon: I know that the 2003 Off-Broadway revival used a different actor for each role, and that a production in Chicago a few years ago used a cast of only six (one less than ours, and I can’t quite figure out how that doubling worked). Whenever doubling is suggested in a previously produced script, I tend to follow the suggestions – keeping cast size down is always great, actors tend to enjoy sinking their teeth into multiple characters in the same show, and the suggested breakdown has already been tested to be workable.
Mark R. Hasan: Was the idea of having characters freeze on stage while Lemon comments on the enacted memories in the original 1985 production? (They have a great contemporary cinematic feel.)
Dan Spurgeon: No idea – it’s not in the script, which has very little in the way of stage direction. That’s just something I did… I’m a pretty cinema-influenced stage director. My thoughts on that conceit are that when you recall memories, they tend to be momentary and end fairly abruptly – you don’t remember 3 days of vacation; you remember very specific points and events that may or may not blend into one another.
Mark R. Hasan: You also did the sound design, and I wonder if some of the music choices were meant to deliberately push Shawn’s existing absurdism a little farther. The final conversation between Lemon and her aunt is suspiciously treacly, and I’m sure I heard Hagood Hardy’s “The Homecoming” at the beginning.
Dan Spurgeon: Sound design for this play was very tricky. The point of view wasn’t a comment or push on absurdism, but designed to be part of Lemon’s manipulative tendencies. It’s the music she assigns to her memories. The treacly music at Dan’s last appearance was chosen for just that quality – she’s become sappy and simplified as far as Lemon is concerned, and the music reflects that. (The Homecoming is not in there… though I had to check my cue sheet, because a great portion of the music was selected based totally on being short solo piano pieces. As cues were plugged in here and there, it became clear that Dan’s sound was a solo piano, much like Lemon’s parents’ sound was variations on classical pieces.)
Mark R. Hasan: In the excerpt from Shawn’s 1986 essay that’s reprinted in the programme, Shawn seems to regard people as flawed creatures who can sometimes drift into grey and wrong moral ground when they’ve blindered themselves to reality, or failed to inquire and explore. However, no one’s actually 100% horrible in the play, because they have flaws which seem to stem from a lack of compassion in parts of their pasts and daily lives. Was it hard to find that grey zone, and create moments where audience sympathies are supposed to shift specific degrees?
Dan Spurgeon: I don’t think the grey zone needs to be found; I feel it exists in the script. What I see is a more gradual shift – Lemon is introduced with a great deal of likeability and sympathy, and by the end this softness is revealed to be a facade for an extremely cold, rather cruel interior. Dan is the opposite, she starts as a hard-hearted woman with unpalatable ideology and is revealed to have a soft heart, longing for and open to real love and intimacy.
Mark R. Hasan: What feelings do you have towards Lemon and her aunt Dan, in terms of sympathy or perhaps cruel amusement?
Dan Spurgeon: It’s kind of funny – I kept coming back to individuals from my own life when directing this one, and how I consider or remember them now has been totally colored by my own experiences since then. Both Dan and Lemon speak comfortable truths, uncomfortable truths, half-truths, and outright lies. Both have likeable qualities and very unlikeable ones.
In real life, we tend to be able to amplify one or the other depending on how we feel about the person, but the script doesn’t afford us that opportunity – we see them as both throughout the play. The primary conflict in this piece is not between characters that have been comfortably placed into categories of “good” and “bad,” but between the playwright and the audience in refusing to make the categorization of its characters quite so easy.
Mark R. Hasan: There are two aspects of the play that strike me as real, of which the first is the gradual erosion of the friendship between Lemon’s mother and aunt.
Tight or beloved relations tend to disintegrate over time instead of ending after one big kaboom, and I’ve a sense Aunt Dan’s hefty rant on the virtues of Henry Kissinger was the final straw, revealing the unnerving leanings or delusions we suspect lie in friends, that tolerate for a while, and then say ‘Enough!’ It’s like discovering your favourite uncle or grandmother was a racist or a Holocaust denier, and there’s simply no way to resolve that when a person’s unwilling to change and / or defend a preposterous stance.
Dan Spurgeon: This brings up practical concerns surrounding production. I was set on keeping the runtime as short as possible, because the play is written without intermission and inserting one is impossible. The original exchange cuts back and forth between the Dan-Mother argument and the Mindy-Lemon reminiscence a couple of times, providing a greater sense of the “endless alternation” of days and nights Lemon mentions, as well as illustrating that this is not a one-time argument but something that builds over a period of time.
While it works beautifully, it also pushed the runtime up by several minutes without providing essential additional information. We followed most of the cuts and changes outlined by Shawn in his notes printed in the script, and this was one done in the original production to shorten the runtime. We didn’t make the cut until late in the process, as I was hoping to preserve the alternation, but “keeping the audience comfortable” ultimately won out.
Mark R. Hasan: The second aspect that often had me chuckling (because I’ve a twisted sense of humour, and love political satire) are the surreal parallels between Aunt Dan’s rants and Donald Trump. Clearly Shawn’s play was meant to address issues and figures leading up to 1985, but I found it hysterical how much of Aunt Dan’s blather could’ve stemmed from Trump’s pouty lips. Did her character resonate when you read the play, or did you find reality started to imitate Shawn’s absurdist prose over the past few months, especially during rehearsals?
Dan Spurgeon: When I first picked up the script again late last year, I was already thinking of the fascistic, racist, xenophobic rhetoric coming from the Trump campaign. When re-reading it, I was stunned by just how similiar Dan’s ideas and lectures were to what I was seeing in the news and on my Facebook feed every day. That’s actually why we decided to produce it now – there is so much in Dan’s views that, with a change of names and places, sounds exactly like what many conservative Americans are saying today.
Dan’s intense hero-worship surrounding Kissinger is absurd, but we’re seeing a terrifying real display of the same attitude today around Trump. (And this same intrinsically intolerant viewpoint is also well on the rise in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the West.)
Mark R. Hasan: I think the unintentional contemporary allusions work so well because Shawn doesn’t name names except for Kissinger and the regimes that participated in the Vietnam War. On the one hand, the lack of historic specifics it makes the play less dated and accessible, and on the other, it also shows how history can repeat itself in horrible variations, and some members of society – especially Aunt Dan and her untouchable government leaders – don’t learn from the lessons of history.
Dan Spurgeon: Unintentional in a script written over 30 years ago, but very intentional when it came to our production. The similarities were one of the first things discussed with actors – many brought it up in auditions, once they had seen the script. The phrase that kept coming into my head both in analysis and rehearsal was, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Mark R. Hasan: Perhaps the X factor that Shawn was also trying to point out is the unknown power of the masses who, whether due to a sense of outrage, protest, arrogance, or outright ignorance, can form a movement that proves deadly, making Lemon a bit more than a pea brain. She deserves a bit of sympathy, but she’s also grown up into a genial, timid, horrible person.
Dan Spurgeon: Does Lemon deserve sympathy? I’m not so sure. By the end of the play, we have no real idea what we’ve been told that’s truthful, and what’s been embellished or outright fabricated in order to manipulate us into accepting the “reality” of Lemon’s worldview.
Is Lemon as ill as she claims, or this is a manipulative tactic to gain attention and sympathy that she’s perfected over the years? Was her home life as awful as she claimed, or has that experience been further colored by the “wonderful” time with Aunt Dan?
She’s a-ok with the idea of killing by the end – but exactly how far does that approval extend, considering everyone around her seems to die fairly young after proving themselves useless to her? This is what I love about this script – lots of questions, and on the occasion you do find one answer, ten more questions also arise.
Mark R. Hasan: And lastly, can you explain Shawn’s inclusion of the very strange gangster sequence, which seems to be a creation of its time, using lewdness, provocative sex, nudity, and murder to shock audiences at the midpoint?
Dan Spurgeon: The indirect memories Lemon has – i.e., those related to her by Dan – were the most difficult parts of the play to parse. It took me a while personally to figure out the point of Andy at all, as well as the Jasper scene.
I believe the importance of the Mindy / gangster sequence is that it makes killing personal, sexy, and cool. You’re seeing a memory twice-removed at that point – Lemon is remembering a story told her by Dan that Dan was told by Mindy – so ideas of “reality” or “truth” are pretty much thrown out the window. Thus, what we get as a re-enactment is a stock story populated with stock characters in a vague urban location, and played deliberately with a cinematic gloss. My personal take is that Lemon has filled in her own details based on snippets of novels and films she’s digested, to create something worthy of the importance this story has in her general worldview.
Oddly, I’m reminded of something Laurie Anderson spoke about in a concert I once saw – how different memory is from reality in general, from a cinematic viewpoint. The experience in the present has a shaky camera, inconsistent focus, and wonky sound, but the memory is smooth with great cinematography and perfect editing. I think there’s something to be connected between that idea and this scene, and the play in general.
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Aunt Dan and Lemon, directed by Dan Spurgeon and produced by Drew Blakeman, concludes its run this weekend at the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, with evening shows Fri. thru Sat. at 7:30pm, and 2pm matinee shows Sat. and Sun. Check theatre listings for more info.
Very special thanks to Dan Spurgeon, Drew Blakeman, and Glenda Fordham at Fordham P.R.