Recovery, relationships take center stage
July 7, 2005
In their third year in Yale’s graduate drama department, Vincent Cardinal and his classmates returned from the holiday break to an alarming assignment. Milan Stitt, one of the department’s three lead instructors, told the aspiring playwrights that their graduation hinged on receiving a contract for one of their works from an off-Broadway or regional theater. Cardinal turned to Arthur Miller, one of the program’s other instructors (the notable trio was rounded out by George Roy Hill, screenwriter of “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting”), and asked his advice.”I said to Mr. Miller, ‘What should we do?'” recalled Cardinal. “He said, very dryly, ‘If I was in your shoes, I’d start writing.'”Since the assignment was as unexpected as it was frightening, Cardinal had to find inspiration wherever he could. Three weeks later, doing his work-study job of shuttling actors from New Haven, Conn., to New York City, Cardinal found himself outside a Manhattan restaurant, face to face with a former student from his years teaching at an Ohio high school. Ty, the one-time pupil and something of a visual-arts genius, was in memorable shape: drunk and disoriented, embarrassed that he didn’t recognize Mr. Cardinal. Cardinal was aware of Ty’s drug entanglement, his particular taste for ecstasy, and his status as one of New York’s club kids of the late 1980s who raced from party to party to the delight of the press. But even Cardinal was shocked by the photo he saw in the newspaper the next day: Ty, exposing himself, accompanied by his new bride, whose words – “I married him because I thought he was a girl!” – were contained in the caption.
“I was thinking, what’s going to happen to Ty – this nice boy from the Midwest who got sucked into this crazy world?” said Cardinal. “None of these kids I knew, all these kids in that club party circuit, were comfortable in their skins.”Cardinal’s further musings on the future of Ty, and those in his position, are captured in “The Colorado Catechism.” The 1989 play examines the budding relationship between its two characters: the 30ish Ty, a successful portrait painter, and Donna, a home economics teacher a few years older. The play as originally written had two locations: in Ty’s studio and on the front porch of the Roger Goodman Drug and Alcohol Clinic in Cripple Creek, Colo., site of the flashback scenes where Ty and Donna begin their tentative romance. “The Colorado Catechism” was, in fact, produced by the esteemed Circle Repertory Company, and Cardinal graduated. Theatre Aspen’s production of “The Colorado Catechism” opens Thursday, July 14, and runs in dovetail repertory through Aug. 11. The play features Rick Stear as Ty and Diana Dresser (who appeared as Mary Bailey in Theatre Aspen’s stage version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in December) as Donna. Directing the play, for the first time, is Cardinal himself.Despite the spontaneous encounter with the real-life Ty, the subject of addiction was not an on-the-spot revelation for Cardinal. Though never an addict himself, he had seen friends and family members march through various 12-step programs; he sees such involvement as practically part of the job description for a high school teacher. And Cardinal had already done some thinking about the way that addiction and recovery themes mirror the big issues of anybody’s life: values, communication, trust.”I find the investigations involved in the recovery process so vital to speaking about what it is to be human,” said the 44-year-old Cardinal, who took the Colorado location of the play from his own time in Cripple Creek in the early ’80s. “It forces you to re-examine – or examine for the first time – what’s important, what you value, how you communicate.”In the play, Ty and Donna don’t communicate on the highest level. Their budding romance is filled with jabs and threats, half-truths and lies. Only as they establish some fragile form of trust do they begin revealing the true circumstances of their lives and truly open up to each other. It captures that less-than-honest, not-quite-real world of addicts. Or juveniles.
“Most pertinent to ‘The Colorado Catechism,’ one of the things I’ve learned about recovery is, say you start abusing at 16 and get sober at 30,” said Cardinal. “Part of the recovery process is going back to these emotional places and living them over. So, in ‘Colorado Catechism,’ it’s a re-experiencing of adolescence between two people. But adolescence at 30 has different stakes than it does at 16.”Balancing that sober reality in the play is a sense of humor. Despite the surface dreariness of the subject matter, “The Colorado Catechism” is fantastically popular, receiving perhaps 100 productions and being translated into French and German. To Cardinal, the laughs are not something forced into the play to lighten the tone, but an honest reflection of the recovering addict.”People in recovery tend to make it a hoot,” he said. “People who don’t have any acquaintance with recovery tend to do these slow, sad versions of it. But the truth is, it’s pretty irreverent and funny.”Cardinal has seen numerous interpretations – some 50 or 60, he estimates – of “The Colorado Catechism.” Colleges often stage the play and invite Cardinal to conduct a workshop and see the production. But while he considers himself more a director than a playwright – he is the producing artistic director of the Jerry Herman Ring Theatre at the University of Miami (Fla.), where he is also chairman of the theater arts department – he has never directed the play. At the invitation of Theatre Aspen artistic director David McClendon, he has taken a chance to revisit, and revise, the work.”When I’m directing it, I don’t feel like I wrote it,” said Cardinal, who is also working, for the second time, on a screenplay of “The Colorado Catechism.” “I don’t feel like I’m inside of it, too close to it. I feel like someone much younger than me wrote this play.”I appreciate more how hard these characters are trying. … I was harder on them when I was younger.”
As a director, Cardinal groups himself with those who have had contact with the recovery process. Theater Aspen’s production plays toward the comic end, rather than the somber.”Mine is a more humorous interpretation,” he said. “There’s a saying: ‘Laughter’s the only drug we have left.’ And I’m trying to use that drug.” Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org