Plan B’s ‘Nothing Personal’ takes personal look at torture, abuse of power
Interview » Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen spins off characters from the Clinton administration.
By Barbara M. Bannon
| Special to The Tribune
First Published Oct 19 2013 01:01 am
Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:36 pm
Plan-B Theatre Company opens its season this week with local playwright Eric Samuelsen’s "Nothing Personal," whose main characters come from the Clinton administration’s Whitewater real-estate scandal: Susan McDougal, the Arkansas woman jailed for contempt of court, and Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor. Or are they? I posed a few questions to Samuelsen; Jerry Rapier, who directs the production; and Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, who plays the intriguing character of the matron.
Why did you write this play? Why were you interested in it?
Samuelsen » Initially I was interested in the story of Clinton and Susan McDougal, and I thought I’d write a play just about that. But it was post 9/11, we were in the middle of the War on Terror, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought that just that story — of Kenneth Starr and Susan McDougal — worked better as a jumping-off point to a larger exploration of human-rights abuses and basic civil liberties. So I let my imagination run free and went all kinds of places that really don’t have anything to do with Starr and McDougal.
Rapier » The play isn’t really about Susan McDougal and Kenneth Starr at all because most of what happens in the play never happened. Kenneth Starr never questioned Susan McDougal in prison. It’s Eric’s view of the impact of Susan and Kenneth, not a history lesson.
Why should any of us care about what happened to Susan McDougal? If somebody asked you, why should I come and see this play, what would you say?
Rapier » Susan McDougal matters because she was abused in a way that would be unconscionable now and could not be hidden as well. In the mid-1990s, it was still possible to hide such things, and now that’s not the case. We get so much information that we’re desensitized by it. It’s one thing to discuss how people are treated; it’s another thing to experience — even in a very small degree — the impact that has on someone. Whether or not you agree with the use of torture and the use of force to get people to confess to a crime, participating in it, observing it, being fully aware of even a small part of what the emotional impact is on the person being treated that way is almost overwhelming. You forget how the way we consume information really distances us from what it is we’re trying to learn. The thing I see as most American in my lifetime is that we are so shortsighted that it is inevitable that history will repeat itself. So Susan McDougal happened almost 20 years ago, but had we paid attention, maybe — just maybe — Guantánamo would have been handled differently.
Samuelsen » I think what the play does is provide audiences with the subjective experience of being abused, the subjective experience of a victim and an abuser. And it explores other issues that are really interesting, like what is truth? What’s real? What is the difference between subjectivity and objectivity? Is objectivity possible?
Rapier » Truth with a capital T may not exist, but there are small truths that separate the good of the people from the good of the individual. How do you know the difference? How do you navigate when those in power are more interested in maintaining power than in serving those who put them in power?
Samuelsen » I think there is also a corrective that the play accomplishes. I just saw the film "Prisoners." I wanted to do something about torture that shows what I think is a truer reality, which is that it doesn’t work; it’s not effective.
Rapier » I don’t want people to think that we’re witnessing torture because that’s not what the play is about; the play is about the effects of it, not the acts. In many cases, we build up to the moment, and then we come out of the moment, but we don’t see the moment, which is almost more horrifying—to fill in the gap with your own thoughts.
Samuelsen » It’s a scary play to watch.
The play’s third character is very enigmatic. She is the matron, but she never speaks except once, and that time she uses glossolalia (like speaking in tongues). Who or what does this character represent, and what are the challenges in portraying her?
Darby-Duffin » She represents everything that’s behind being locked down, locked up. I think she also represents this kind of silent religious bloc that doesn’t really say anything, that goes along and polices what people say is supposed to be the right thing. I follow along because these are the rules, and this is my job. Initially she’s kind of contemptible; the idea that you don’t say anything ever is horrifying. I think that she should be saying something, but she probably has succumbed to, "Yeah, of course, we’re doing this for the right reasons. We’re trying to keep America safe." She’s so deeply rooted in being patriotic and also having this deep-rooted religion that she has to believe it, and when she doesn’t anymore, then you see that wall break down. I guess everybody has that too-much state where they go, "This is more than enough." I’ve been thinking about that: What is more than enough for individual people, and when we get to more than enough, that’s when revolution happens.
Samuelsen » I wanted the matron to represent the ordinary people who work in the intelligence establishment or the Justice Department: There are people who give the orders; then there are the other people who — it’s just a job. A lot of people who end up working in that area of government tend to be religiously conservative, so that’s why she speaks in tongues. When Kenneth loses her, he loses everything. When finally it sickens people for whom this is just a job, that’s when this stuff will stop happening.
Any other reasons for us to come and see the play?
Samuelsen » It’s been very interesting to me this last week to watch our country working its way through our own national hostage crisis. It has a very weird resonance with the play. The shifting, ever-changing narrative, the invention of false narrative — granted it’s all political maneuvering — but it has every element of hostage taking and attempts at abuse.
Rapier » It’s a grittier, more raw, bolder play than people are used to seeing from Eric. It shows a different side of his skill as a writer and his passion for America than most people attribute to him. That’s also the reason I wanted to start the season with it.