Rachel in Wonderland: Interview with playwright Craig Lucas on “Reckless” as a hallucinatory Christmas fable

In an interview he granted exclusively for Applause magazine, Craig Lucas recuses himself from addressing how a Denver Center Theater Company revival of Reckless might speak to our 21st century concerns. “You’re asking me,” Lucas says, in response to my impertinent question, “to assess audiences and society, as opposed to my individual engagement with themes and stories and meanings. I don’t know how to do that.” The playwright does not see his work as an expression of or an appeal to a zeitgeist, old or new. “I write for what I would want to see,” he continues. “The question you’re asking seems to me to be aimed toward cultural critics or sociologists, people who speak for the whole. I am one voice, and that is what I have to hang on to.”

Portrait of Craig Lucas | Photography by Lisa Osta

Lucas’s recusal isn’t so surprising. The creative act is a daring, difficult and frequently unfathomable feat—and Lucas’s is twisty, allusive and complex. Although as an openly gay man Lucas does not separate his social and political convictions from his vision as a dramatist, he is a dark fabulist by temperament. The artifice-laden plot to Reckless is so improbable that it speaks truthfully about the loony incoherence of life. One moment, an angelically perky housewife and mother of two boys, named Rachel Fitzsimmons, is snuggling in bed with her husband and listening to the comforting croons of Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Next thing you know, Rachel has accepted a ride and is speeding down the freeway, leaving behind her kids, her name, even her wedding ring, which she tosses out the window. Thinking that she is having a “euphoria attack,” Rachel learns that her guilt-ridden husband has hired a hit man to kill her. Forced to flee in a housecoat and slippers, she embarks on a bizarre odyssey, a tumble through a cruel wonderland as if on a perpetual freefall. “Things happen for a reason,” Rachel keeps saying in her sensible-mom way, until she is forced to ask, “Or do they?” Her puzzlement—the quandry of an accidental existentialist—strikes a melancholic chord.

“Rachel Fitzsimmons, c’est moi,” Lucas tells me, echoing Gustave Flaubert’s remark on Emma in Madame Bovary. Rachel is important to Lucas, because her picaresque adventures in Reckless refract his own psychological journey toward realization. Mentored by the poet Anne Sexton, aspiring to become a writer in the early 1980s, Lucas mined the deep recesses of his psyche to dig Reckless out; the play was for him a means to grapple with a void in his personal history: the experience of being an abandoned baby. On the day of his birth in April 1951, he was abandoned by his birth mother, leaving him on the backseat of a parked car in a gas station in Atlanta, Ga., with a note explaining that she could not afford to care for a baby and stating that he was related to Admiral Dewey. Lucas considers being left unattended in a car in the middle of a cold night a form of “proactive cruelty,” an experience that “exists for me on a preconscious and inescapable level.”

Fortunately a Pennsylvania couple adopted him as an eight-month-old baby. “I began as a suburban kid with two Republican middle-class parents,” Lucas says. “I was raised in a world where Jews, blacks, queers, socialists and drug users were all hidden from sight and reviled. The idea of truthfully acknowledging pain was anathema.” In what way did this life history affect the themes explored in Reckless? “I was raised to lie about things in order to appear ‘normal,’” Lucas answers. “My mother, born a Jew, hated the idea of being ghettoized or in any ways excluded from the mainstream of American life, whatever that might have meant to her. As all children do, I unconsciously identified with her shame, which I carry to this day.”

Lies sprout and multiply in Reckless. But there is a chord of truthfulness in Rachel’s experience beneath the glitter of narrative artifice. Rachel’s Pollyanna outlook, for instance, stems from his mother’s identity. “It is a kind of plucky American optimism married to a potentially deadly manner of denial in the face of trauma,” Lucas says. “Rachel’s m.o. up until Lloyd’s death is to run, to deny, to put on a brave, happy face. Once she collapses and stops running and stops chattering to keep the sadness at bay, she is finally free to begin to listen and to have some kind of authentic self.”

Michael O'Keefe and Mary-Louise Parker in the Roundabout Theatre revival of Craig Lucas's "Reckless" | Photograph by Joan Marcus

For Lucas, who turns 60 next year, life has been a search for truth, fantasy, artistic identity, hot sex and authenticity. Yet his early plays reveal him to be a poet of loneliness; the pained awareness of alienated intimacy motors his characters. Of course, the talking-salve of therapy, which Reckless relentlessly sends up, has helped him sort things out so that he could make positive choices based on hard-earned insights.

Nevertheless, spurred by a desire “to work out certain things through the process of creating art, and hopefully to reach people,” Lucas had kept picking at Reckless obsessively until the re-tinkered play, which first premiered Off-Off-Broadway in 1983, enjoyed an extended run at Off-Broadway’s Circle Repertory Company in Greenwich Village in the fall of 1988. “I cut a subplot about genetic engineering and Albanian spies that was skewing the audience’s understanding of the central dramatic action, making the play seem to be about a kind of paranoia,” he recalls. Tampering down the play’s grimmer aspects as well, he reshaped Reckless into its current form as an absurdist midwinter night’s dream comedy.

Mia Farrow and Tony Goldwyn in Norman Rene's film version of "Reckless"

“Norman,” Lucas adds, “insisted that Rachel had to change and grow in some way—that we had to give the audience hope at the end of the play.” Norman was the late director Norman René, who died of complications from AIDS in 1996. Lucas’s close friend and longtime champion, René staged all of the writer’s first six major plays in their first instances as well as filmed his first three screenplays, including the luminous 1995 movie version of Reckless which starred Mia Farrow, Tony Goldwyn and Mary-Louise Parker.

Viewed from the perspective of theater history, Reckless and Prelude to a Kiss were pivotal works. Having originated in the avant-garde fever of the 1960s, Circle Rep had nurtured and minted a house style, dubbed “lyric realism,” that was best exemplified by the works of Lanford Wilson, as well as Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and William M. Hoffman’s As Is. Agile and witty, characterized by fractured narratives, rowdy comic exaggeration, cinematic quirks and emotional abstractions, Reckless and Prelude to a Kiss broached and breached to a degree the boundaries of that front-porch poetic naturalism. Lucas became acknowledged as an impish and enterprising artificer who manages to satirically capture all kinds of slippery social realities.

Applause program magazine for Craig Lucas's "Reckless" in Denver

It’s very tempting to want to nail down Reckless—to pin down its wacky but pained flutters, like a butterfly on a corkboard. Might it be a glittering holiday prank, something gaily and bright that turns out to be a dark night of the soul? Might it be about homelessness as a spreading social condition? Might it be about the dangers of the American notion of self-invention? Might it be a cheery attack on our myths of refuge and security—a grownup fairy tale about home unsweet home? And yet the uncanny power of Reckless (why it gets frequently revived today) flows from the way it grapples, in dream terms, with life’s most vexed subjects (pain, loss, mental illness, homelessness, betrayal, nameless middle-of-the-night fears, the chaos of the universe). The design and imaginative life of this play helps put us freshly—and disturbingly—in touch with the slipperiness of fate and the perverse turns our alienated lives take as we quest for self-realization.

The very title itself alerts us to the wounding lack of control that is its true content and its ruptured form. Fairy tales are about the onset of night, the danger inside and outside of families, in villages, in forests, in the suburbs. Reckless dramatizes a suburban mom’s disorientated quest in a brutal universe; the play’s restive form poignantly reflects this mystifying state of disorder at the same time that its farcical experimentalism violates the assumptions of a more naturalistic genre and zanily transgresses its borders.

The dramatic coup, though, is not that the play accomplishes a risky shift away from realism into some kind of fantasy but that (even more riskily) it expands the ambit of realism, enlarging it to contain the discontinuous, inexplicable, uncanny. This bittersweet fable tells a hallucinatory Christmas fable. Because it so casually shatters our illusion of tranquility, because it so surprisingly upsets our sense of wellbeing and domestic bliss—because it so slyly blurs the line between reality and fiction to dramatize how we seek to fully understand the reckless nature of change—Reckless will always be timeless.

This essay was commissioned by the Denver Center Theatre Company for its Applause program magazine.

Jeffrey M. Bender, Leslie O’Carroll and Julia Motyka in Denver Center Theater Company's revival "Reckless" | Photo by Terry Shapiro

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