Fathers and Sons
(MUSIC. IN DARKNESS WE HEAR:)
PETER: I have a son.
(LIGHTS RISE on a table in a restaurant. PETER sits across from KATE. They have finished their dinner and the table has been cleared. Kate is sipping from a glass of Perrier. A bottle of red sits half-empty on the table. Peter’s wine glass is half-full of red. During the conversation Peter makes a large dent in this bottle. A beat, then:)
PETER: I never told you because, um, well, it’s complicated.
(A beat. Kate is bracing for bad news, she’s not sure what.)
PETER: He – lives with me. And – um –
KATE: How old is he?
KATE: Oh. Well, a lot of kids today live at home. I mean, older kids. Is he still in school?
PETER: Yeah. But – um –
KATE: He doesn’t approve of me.
PETER: No, it’s not that. I think he’d like you very much.
KATE: You mean, you haven’t told him about me.
PETER: No. But, well, I mean –
PETER: He’s challenged. Mentally. And physically. From birth.
PETER: He has a type of cerebral palsy called quadraplegia accompanied by spasticity and epilepsy and severe mental retardation. He can’t walk on his own or read or anything like that. He can’t bathe himself or shave or go to the bathroom. It’s very severe. (a beat) I – I told you when we first met that my wife left me for another man but that’s not entirely true. I mean there was another man eventually, but Megan left me because, well – she didn’t really leave me, she left Tommy. I mean, she stuck around for almost two years but she just couldn’t do it. I don’t blame her – any more – I mean, I couldn’t do it either, really, without help.
KATE: Peter, I’m so sorry.
PETER: I didn’t tell you until now because now, well, um, you need to know. Because –
KATE: Peter –
PETER: No, let me finish.
PETER: This is why I – never asked you back after dinner, why I can only see you on certain nights, why I have to leave your place by a certain hour. You probably thought I was still married or something –
KATE: It crossed my mind.
PETER: Yeah, well – I’m not. I mean, I guess I am married to him, but –
PETER: Whenever I dated someone I would tell her right away and everyone, everyone, was always so sympathetic and a few of them even slept with me out of, I don’t know, not pity but – “Hey, I can’t help him with the kid but at least I can give him some relief.” Anyway, nothing ever lasted. So I started not telling women and it always worked out that we broke up for, well, better reasons than – Tommy.
PETER: The good news is I haven’t broken up with you for – any reason. Oh God, this isn’t – I rehearsed this, I made notes, but it’s not coming out the way I wanted it to and it would look pretty awful if I checked my notes now. I – I so didn’t want to tell you, Kate. But I had to.
PETER: I’ve fallen in love with you.
(A beat. He surreptitiously pulls out a piece of paper from his trouser pocket and checks it. Then:)
PETER: But – it’s not a question of our getting married or moving in together because that can’t happen, I won’t allow that to happen, I won’t ask you – anyone – to –
KATE: That should be up to me, not you.
PETER: No, this isn’t a choice. No one would want to do this, Kate. Because if you did you’d wind up hurt and exhausted and guilty and it would all end terribly.
PETER: So – this is what I’m proposing –
PETER: What’s so funny?
KATE: You said when you called this afternoon you had a proposal you wanted to make.
KATE: I thought it was a proposal.
PETER: Oh. Sorry.
KATE: Me too.
KATE: So what’s your proposal?
PETER: That – you think this over. That you – not decide to leave me tonight.
KATE: Leave you?
PETER: Everyone does. Has.
KATE: I’m not everyone.
PETER: Okay. But you’re not everyone because I love you and if you were to leave me – which is an option – it would make a big difference. To me. So please – so –
(A beat. He checks his notes again.)
PETER: So what I’m proposing is that you choose – you take time to decide – if you want to let me – keep seeing you – be with you – sleep with you – or – which is totally understandable – if you want to just – call it off. Just don’t tell me tonight.
KATE: I want to keep seeing you.
PETER: No. Don’t tell me tonight. You say that because –
KATE: I love you.
PETER: – because you feel bad for me –
KATE: I do.
PETER: – but that won’t sustain a relationship –
KATE: Of course not.
PETER: – and the fact is that we can never be married and we can never live together and our lives together, our dating lives, our loving lives are completely and totally limited by him, by his needs –
KATE: I’d like to meet him.
PETER (simultaneous): – by my love for him and my obligation to him –
KATE: I want to meet him.
PETER: It won’t change anything that I’ve said tonight.
KATE: Do you want to continue seeing me?
PETER: Oh my God yes.
KATE: When we started dating, what did you think would happen? Let me rephrase that. What did you hope would happen?
PETER: I hoped we would enjoy each other’s company and maybe even become friends but that we wouldn’t fall in love.
KATE: You lose.
Two stories of two fathers with two severely-challenged sons – one story taking place in the present-day, one at the turn of the last century – and how each father learns (or does not learn) from his son’s handicap.
When I was in college, my work-study job was in the Drama Department Library. In the entire year I worked there, no one checked out a book; people came to sleep. One day, feeling that I should be earning my “salary”, I decided to straighten up the shelves. No one had touched these books for years, mind you, and in cleaning up one shelf I came upon this:
It was a play, originally bound in fencing boards, and the brittle pages were bound in string. No title. Fascinating. When I told Leo Brady, the playwriting professor who was kind of my boss, about this, he told me I could keep it. I did. The pages were too brittle to turn, so I cut the strings, and discovered a play, in verse, that began with Hamlet soliloquizing: “To do or not to do….” It was an updated version of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet in which Hamlet happily marries Juliet and Romeo marries Ophelia. It was written, at times, in American slang and it was hysterical. I spent years trying to learn more about it (who wrote it? what was it called? what was its history?) but it wasn’t until the advent of the internet that I was able to solve the mystery. (A cast member from Pillars of the Earth helped me get started. He suggested I search obituaries for any of these people listed above.) I learned that “Bessie Curran Smith” died in a small town in North Carolina, where her son “Paul Curran Smith” lived, but that she was buried back in Peoria, Illinois. Searching the Peoria obits, I traced everything back to “William Hawley Smith”, and that’s when I hit pay-dirt. It turns out that he was an educator, rather famous in his day, and that he wrote books on education, on sex, on birth control – all very advanced for his day (and pretty advanced for today too.) Later I visited the house in Peoria where this play – which he called The New Hamlet – was performed.
Most importantly, I learned he had a son – “Leslie Hawley Smith” – who was severely challenged in life, both mentally and physically. Eventually I came to believe that everything that the father believed and taught about education, he “learned” from his son. I found the story deeply, deeply moving.
And so I wrote this play. William and Leslie, and the wife/mother Nell, are prominently featured.
This is, for want of a better word, something of a tragedy. It is, I believe, my best play to date. When it was first read – in a completely cold reading by a group of volunteer actors – I have never had such a positive reaction to a play of mine. Each of the actors broke down during the reading, and several audience members – and actors – came up to me afterwards, speechless, in tears.