Faith takes the stage
Olympic gymnastic Chellsie Memmel is "on stage in a completely new way," as she puts it, later this month in the nation's capital. She's starring in "The Loser Letters," a play that makes a creative response to the "new atheism" and radical secularism currently gaining steam in our culture and encroaching into public life.
The play is adapted and directed by Jeffrey Fiske, a playwright who describes the show as a young woman wrestling with Faith, her inner demon. Memmel's character, the personification of the "inner demon," is a nonspeaking role, relying entirely on the prompts of a young female character named A.F. Christian and choreography -- thus the perfect role for a gymnast.
A.F. Christian is the creation of Mary Eberstadt, who, sometime in 2008, told me about her idea for a series of letters written from the vantage point of a young woman struggling with atheism and existential crisis. We published them on National Review Online, and Ignatius Press later published it as a book.
This notion of the Shadow, that "demon" Fiske references, though, was never in the print iterations -- it's the fruit of the creative genius of Fiske. As Eberstadt explains: "There are supernatural elements to A.F.'s tale that are left mostly implicit in the book until the end. What Jeff has done is bring them to life and make them explicit in the form of the Shadow. It makes the production abound with kinetic energy -- both A.F.'s and (that of) her shadowy doppelgänger. The dialectic of their movements is a show in itself."
A.F. is very much one of the "nones" of her generation -- a millennial who steers clear of organized religion. And yet, Eberstadt says: "A.F. struggles with the re-paganization of the world. She's a pilgrim who doesn't even know she's on a pilgrimage -- because she's been robbed by the secular culture of the very language of sin and redemption. Recovering that lost language is a big part of her journey."
The premise of "The Loser Letters" is that "we live in uniquely broken times," Eberstadt says. Perhaps one has to look no further than the current presidential election to drink in that sobering, saddening, maddening reality. Eberstadt, echoing Pope Francis' condemnation of our throwaway society that sees even human beings as disposable, reflects: "In today's secularized culture, a deformed, consumerist view of humanity rules. This causes heartbreak and injustice on a massive scale -- especially by undermining romance and love, as the story of the protagonist goes to show." She emphasizes, "A.F.'s problems and trials are an 'everybody' thing."
In the series of letters that A.F. writes, you hear a "struggle to intuit and understand what people in more sophisticated eras were taught early on: that transgression and penance and redemption aren't chimeras from times past; they're present-day existential realities. Lots of people in our time have learned the same truth the hard way, as she does. Her success in making sense of a broken past is what drives the action of the book and the play."
Fiske tells me that he is "always excited about creating live theater in a way that people can't experience by staying home and watching a screen." If you consider the extent to which screens rule our lives, there is disorder afoot. And "The Loser Letters" takes to the stage -- it debuts at The Catholic University of America on Sept. 29 -- at a time when we are in dire threat of losing so much of our heritage. The play steers away from politics, instead drawing on something deeper within us for reflection.
"Art is so important," Memmel tells me. "It is a form of expression. It is also a way of sparking conversation. I hope people who see the play can take something away from it."
May such a spark keep us from losing our minds, souls, and common identity as created beings with something more to live for than the material world and even presidential elections. Wouldn't that be just about the greatest news ever, if we lived as though we treasured such a faith-based reality and protected those who did, even if we all didn't quite see it the same way?
Email Kathryn Jean Lopez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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