Joe Straw #9 – MORAL IMPERATIVE is “a delicious morsel of art”

A moral imperative is a strongly-felt principle that compels that person to act.

Seth (Martin Thompson) is not known for his quiet ambiguity, he finally gets to his point, in a superfluous academic way. His stories are an amphiboly, sometimes an arduous journey, but he labors to reach his destination. Tonight, the lights are on him as he is giving a speech, a party favor, a titillating bon mot that permeates the room; one suspects this is an intimate gathering, and a party in his home.

Seth continues with his story about a nefarious grade grubber.

“I’ll do anything for an A.” – Student

“Anything?” – Seth

This is a defining moment, one that projects an uneasiness of this crudely jocular professor. He throws a sinister glance and exercises an exaggerated pause.

“Yes.” – Student

Another pause.

“Would you study?” – Seth

Art is ambiguity and Moral Imperative, in all of its ambiguity, is art.

Moral Imperative penned by Joseph is a delicious morsel of art executed on a theatrical canvas under Storm’s direction, accompanied by a wonderful gathering of thespians on Jeff G. Rack’s beautiful set. Michéle Young, the Costume Designer, sets the tone and place creating a delightful look of this New England town that plays host to the mythical private college, Briarton University.

Math and science are considered precise fields. But theatre, by its very nature, is ambiguous. It written in a voice translated by the actors to make imaginative choices; it is molded by the director’s through line, to guide actors as they sally forth with strong objectives. A play is, by definition, ambiguous. If it were anything else, what would be the point?

But, one can always take a look and decide if a presentation successfully worked. Or, could the direction be slightly altered to solidify moments?

Overall, the night was successful; the actors very strategic, but the moral questions, some behavior issues, and actions had me slightly puzzled. One will speak of choices made on this particular night in due time.

Everyone thought that Seth, a provost and philosophy professor, was in line for the job of President of Briarton University, having been at the University in excess of thirty years. Such was not the case.

Seth is slightly upset, but not demonstratively so. Seth’s wife, Mary (Susan Damante), also thought his chance was excellent.

Seth’s intimate friend, Dean Robert (Ken Kamlet), has a phlegmatic respect for Seth as he joined to commiserate on this rather awkward social gathering.

Seth, gamboling around the living room, says he is fluent in five languages including Latin, if that were criteria for being president. Those words speaks volumes about his character as he neither celebrates nor commiserates.

“My father said I won’t amount to anything.” – Seth

An interesting moment that hits at the heart of the matter and also one that takes a low-spirited turn. And, as the guests are thinking of leaving, Mary holds them there with the smell of a caffeinated drink.

Mary is a doting wife, perhaps that is misnomer as she handles a multitude of duties. She is a professional, a doctor, and, if one must praise, she also makes a great cup of coffee.

The work for the night is not quite done. Academic professionals are known for being extremely inquisitive and this night is no exception.

Robert’s Asian wife, Karen (Kyoko Okazaki), is not academic; she teaches very small children. She is fluent in Spanish after spending time teaching in Central America. She hesitates to speak, knowing little about University life, and is cautious when engaged in small talk amongst the brilliant. Karen has strong Christian beliefs, and while most professionals in the room are skeptical yet polite, Seth silently scoffs at her repeated mention of God and Jesus.

Mary tries to keep Seth in check by making eye contact and politely reminding Seth they are guests in their home.

Still, hardly anyone in the room can blame Karen for her faith considering that she has overcome a great deal of adversity. The trauma of having her daughter die in a tragic automobile accident, of which she was the driver, still rings a memory of horrific sounds.

But, the discussion suddenly turns to Oscar (David Hunt Stafford) of whom the Trustees have appointed to the job of the President. Oscar is brilliant and a conservative savvy operative. He is also an inveterate political figurehead who was responsible for the death of sixty thousands Central Americans. It is a fact that the Trustees willfully ignored when they chose him to be the president.

Academics are noted for talking shop in any intimate gathering and tonight are no exception as Robert reads an article about Oscar wanting to seize control of the University and to get rid of tenure and unwanted professors. In short, Seth believes the institution will be destroyed.

Tired of the conversation, Mary and Karen leave the room to look at some toys Mary wants to give to Karen for her kids.

It is here that Seth sets a disturbing course of action. They joke at first, but then Seth turns to the moral imperative of ridding the world of a deplorable. The pustulous intercourse takes a deadly turn. Spurned on by Seth’s plan of action, he wants Robert along for the ride.

Robert, in pusillanimous mode, says they were only joking about assassinating Oscar. He’s not sure how this discussion has turned into an eristical game.

“You’re not the first professor who had an affair.” – Seth

Ouch, not so much a game anymore. Seth goes pretty low when he mentions Roberts’s marital infidelity and one, in particular, that caused a young woman to commit suicide.

“Can’t believe the trustees made such a bad decision.” – Robert

Seth, using his words, is persuasive, implementing every trick to get Robert on board.

“Oscar asked that you be at the meeting.” – Seth

“If we did this, can you live with yourself?” – Robert

“Yes!” – Seth

David Hunt Stafford plays Oscar, and about the only thing that I can tell you and still stay in the first act is that an attempt is made on his life, an overly aggressive attempt. Stafford does an excellent job, his execution is done in small increments, and it is magnificent in its final implementation.

Brandee Steger plays Detective Pauline and she is much like Columbo without the trench coat. It is a marvelous role for Steger who makes the most of an exciting character that manages to get to the bottom of things one way or another.

Kyoko Okazaki plays Karen a hapless character filled with strife and worries, mostly inner struggles of the death of her child and her husband’s infidelities. Karen is strong in her beliefs and is naïve in the way she believes things work. Okazaki’s work incorporates a strong technique especially the personal background story and her relationship with the other characters.

Susan Damante presents a very strong figure as Mary. Mary puts all the pieces of the puzzle together, although it takes her a while to do so. When she says that her husband was reading her medical book that set off some red flags for me but her husband paid scant attention to that remark. Sometimes I would like to see more of a moment and Mary’s entrance at the end of the first act should play longer for various reasons of what is going on on stage. Delay this entrance and make it excruciating long, for the sake of a moment, drop your keys, have a multitude of bags in your arms, key jam in the door, scream for help, etc. That aside, Damante is excellent in her craft and her work plays to perfection in all of her quiet moments.

Ken Kamlet is Robert and was successful on most fronts. There were problems with his relationship with his mentor that were not clearly defined or illustrated. Most of it had to do with infidelity and the manner in which it is used against him in order to be an accomplice. There is more we need to see in his relationship with his mentor. What is the one thing that makes him want to go along with the plan? Also, faith, conscience, and guilt plays an important part in his being and holding the glass has to be the most terrifying event in his life. They had spoken about it. His back is turned when the drink is poisoned. He is handed the drink. Did he look into the givers eyes? Is he shaking, or having seconds thoughts? These are things he can add to an already terrific performance.

Martin Thompson is Seth and his motives must be stronger. Without giving too much away, an event toward the end provides a key reason as to why he pushes everyone to the brink. But his actions are not strong enough, not powerful enough, and sometimes plays like a melodrama. Is it the polite academia charm that keeps him from pushing the boundaries? Little is made of Seth reading his wife’s medical journal when in reality she is giving away his secret! Also, the affair remark is said in such a casual way that the intention is lost, the – I’ve got you on this, I’ve kept your secret, so you must help me – intention! Also, Seth must have a fall guy in case something goes terribly wrong so he can throw the spineless Robert under the bus. And all that aside, Seth is holding on to a terrible secret, something has gone wrong within him, and whether that’s what spurns him on, one can’t say, but it would be nice to have those clues.

Also, Seth and Robert must have a stronger relationship and that relationship must defined in a myriad of ways, colleagues, mentor, master, slave, and manipulator. Most were used in various forms but the execution was mild and needed strengthening for a stronger theatrical presentation.

The funny thing about Howard Storm’s direction is that the first act plays like a comedy including the assassination scene but in the second act actions becomes very dramatic. The humor is not wasted in the first act, but action could be more pointed to the dramatic and not lose a thing. I’ve mentioned the poisoning of the drink and that scene could be taken to another level. The same holds true with the scene of the end of the first act. There is a lot more dramatic action to add in this scene. The smoking scenes don’t progress the play, slightly taking away from the objective, and only giving an understanding of a causal link in the end. On another note I had a little problem with the nitroglycerin bottle that Oscar had in his possession, and was later taken from him by Robert. But then where did the bottle go? Who has the bottle? I found it an important question to ask. Others disagreed with me.

Samuel Warren Joseph has written a wonderful play. It rings so delightfully true of academia, of the people, and place. In the end Seth’s motives are heinous, because he is doing it all for himself, not his wife, not for his kids, and not even for his friends. Joseph has created a tragic character who is extremely selfish, and is a very appalling figure of someone who is willing to sacrifice others for the one thing he needs. He gathers little sympathy in the end and he loses everything for the want of that one thing. What more could you ask for in a theatrical presentation?

Run! Run! Run! And take your favorite professor. I did and she loved it!