Dramaturg's Note

By Rob Ascher          

Central to our experience for this past year (and then some) has been the widespread feeling that we are caught in-between. The majority of our social interactions have been mediated by phone calls and video-chat apps, simultaneously personal and impersonal. Our health has existed in a liminal space, as those lucky enough to stay free of the virus expended energy on not contracting it. Those who were infected have not entirely felt the safety of “beating” the virus, as indicated by reports of “long COVID” and re-infection. Here in America, a mass feeling of compromise emerged on a civic level as some voters begrudgingly accepted a Presidential candidate on the premise that he would beat the man who held office. This past year reflects nothing but a lack of certainty, as dog-whistled by ad campaigns earnestly intoning that these times have been “unprecedented”.

The characters in Blue Whale Variations are similarly stuck. Al and Paula are stuck between the impact and acceptance of a loss, while Andy and Charlie are caught, unable to communicate nor find happiness in achieving the expected goals of young adults. It is fitting that we first meet the characters in a transitory moment, as Al and Paula move out of the house Paula grew up in. The conversations in the play are a series of missed connections, between people who are too shell-shocked to connect, as much as they may want to. Without being a play about the pandemic, Blue Whale Variations, written in the spring of 2020, casts a reflection of the intangible numbness many of us have had through the pandemic. 

This lack of feeling was recently referred to as “languishing” in the New York Times by Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grant remarks that “languishing” is distinct as an emotional state, as it is neither thriving or depression. It’s the undecided middle ground where you are “indifferent to your indifference”. Some may complain that languishing isn’t dramatically compelling, but wasn’t Hamlet stuck despite his rage? Most of Chekhov’s characters are unable to decide how to express their deepest feelings. Blue Whale Variations does not portray life as it looks, but rather how it feels at its most dramatic. The Theater of Liminal Emotion is nothing new. 

In-betweenness is also central to the performance of Blue Whale Variations. It takes place around the University’s Theater Building, but not inside a theater with an audience. We see actors and hear their voices, but except for filmed elements, we do not see those actors speak. While the play is presented this way in observance of COVID guidelines, the performed walking tour rhymes well with the in-between emotional states of the play’s action.

Conditions are beginning to change around us, with mass vaccinations and a declining rate of infections. Hopefully we, like the characters in Blue Whale Variations, can find catharsis in reconnecting with our loved ones. For now, we can take solace in reflecting that what we feel (or don’t feel) is common not just among characters in a play, but in our community.