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by david   September 15, 2005

shannon nelson A warning for those with little tolerance for sentiment: I'm gonna go all soft on ya here for a while. Take it.

For the past five weeks, Shannon has been breaking my heart. She hasn't been cheating on me, or treating me badly. She hasn't been cold, or unaffectionate. Her hair, especially by Saturday, has smelled funny though, like dirty jeans, and she's been utterly exhausted by 10PM all weekend long. For five weeks. More, I guess, when you consider rehearsals. You see, Shan has been in a play, Psalms of a Questionable Nature, produced by our theater company, Lucid by Proxy, which closed Sunday night after five weeks of performance. I couldn't/can't review this play, which I loved, for an important reason: I produced it, so, despite my belief in my continued objectivity, the obvious conflict of interest would keep the review from being legitimate.

But I do want to tell you that I saw Psalms, counting dress rehearsals, 14 times. I got tears in my eyes every time. I cried during 9 or 10 of the performances. I wept at three of them. I'm a little bit of an emotional push-over, I'll grant you, but I'm not generally a blubbering baby. The whole production was really tremendous, but what put it over the top, for me, and crushed me night after night, was Shannon.

Now, how do I talk about Shan dispassionately, as an outside observer? How do I describe her raw talent, her achingly simple presentation, so that a reader can understand that I am not simply smitten with my wife, but that I and anyone who saw her in those brief 90 minutes was and would be overwhelmed. I probably can't. But I will try anyway.

Onstage, Shannon has a raw emotional power that is simply unattainable by most of us actors. She's the kind of actor you clamor to work with, because she's so good, so real, that it makes you better, too. She's always fantastic, and given the right role it's like her soul is naked onstage. It's disquieting, and incredibly effective.

Moo, Shannon's character in Psalms, as written by Marisa Wegrzyn (an incredible young Chicago playwright), is one of those roles. Moo is a lost soul - the nonexistent parenting of her distant, disturbed father and her strict, religious fanatic, alcoholic step-mother have created a sort of social outcast, naive about all human relations. The complete lack of interest and affection her parents show leads her to create a fantasy of a special familial bond to an older step-sister she has never met, and causes her to fiercely protect what little remains of her parents once they die.

Played by a lesser actor, the character of Moo would likely be presented to the audience as a bit slow, maybe borderline mentally retarded. It's the easier road, to be sure -- on paper she's a girl in her early twenties with awful personal hygiene who behaves like a petulant pre-teen and has no idea of how the world works. But you never saw that in Shannon's measured, careful portrayal. Shannon's Moo was not slow -- she was smart and curious but hopelessly naive and lacking in basic understanding of how people live and act around each other. Shannon's Moo was constantly working things out -- her conclusions were wildly incorrect not because she was mentally deficient, but because her base information was deeply flawed. That detail in itself, the spot-on portrayal of that detail, would have made Shannon's Moo endlessly engaging.

But what was really, truly devastating about Shannon's portrayal of Moo is how she approached Moo's desperate loneliness. It did not rise and recede as the dialogue required -- it dwelt in every word she said, lurked in every sentence, in every phrase. Again, Marisa shares credit for this, as she crafted this character and her desperate search for family and love, but it was Shannon who, for 90 minutes, showed this need bubbling furiously under the surface, occasionally erupting. Somehow, she created an aching hole in the middle of herself that was almost palpable. Seriously, you could almost see a gaping wound in her soul, even when she was just sitting simply on the steps, listening to Greta (played with tremendous skill by Sasha Harris). When she said simple lines like "that's good, they treat kids good in hospitals, right?" or "I got blood on my shirt," or "I could be something to someone," it's all a person of reasonable emotional balance could do not to cry.

And it's that ache, that emptiness, which so destroyed me every time I saw the show. Her obviously broken heart, portrayed so simply and honestly in her words, her eyes, her physical bearing, in turn broke my heart. I met Shannon doing summer stock. We've been together, more or less, for over 13 years, and I've seen her (and occasionally been onstage with her) in probably twenty or thirty plays in that time. I know, intellectually, that what she's doing isn't real. I know she's just acting. And by rights I should be used to her onstage. It shouldn't affect me so dramatically. But to see her so broken, so desperate for love, for affection, for the simple attention of another human being, to see her need so badly -- that killed me. She was just so fucking good, so real, that my basic instinct to comfort her and fill her heart was overpowering.

I recorded the final performance of the show. With the digital video camera so close to my face, I spent the last 20 minutes of the show fighting to keep it together, to keep the sound of my sniffling off the tape. I think I was mostly successful in stifling the sound (though I had to duck into the bathroom as soon as the lights came on so I could do the after-show-producer-schmooze without an embarrassing amount of tears and snot on my face), but it didn't matter -- half the people around me were making the very same noises I was holding back. I haven't watched the tape yet, but I'm sure you'll be able to hear them.

Which is what makes me so certain of Shannon's brilliance in this performance. Yes, I love her dearly, and have been in awe of her overwhelming (and steadily increasing) power onstage since she was 16. Yes, you could argue (incorrectly) that I am incapable of objective judgement where she is concerned. But the fact that, after the show, almost every night, the audience exited the theater in a sort of stunned silence, the weaker among us wiping our eyes, shows that I am not simply blinded by love. Shannon is really just that good.

And I tell her so, but she doesn't believe me. She, too, thinks that I am just in love. I am in love with her, after all this time. But, beyond that, I am in envious awe of who she is as an actor, of what she's capable of onstage. I have lots of extremely talented actor friends. We can all hang with her onstage, more or less. But when she gets behind the right role, very few of us can even come close to touching her. And I just want her, and everyone, to know how fantastic she is and, since our shows pull in 300 - 400 people at most over the course of a run, it's impossible for everyone to see her incredible work in these small plays we do. So, I have to tell you, and her, right here. Shannon's portrayal of Moo in our recently-closed production of "Psalms of a Questionable Nature" was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen onstage, or on screen, for that matter.

I guess this is sort of a love letter to her, in the end. And sort of a fan letter. That's okay, I guess, despite the fact that it no doubt gives her the upper-hand 'round the house, for a while at least. It is what it is, I am what I am, and she is what she is, and I am truly amazed by her. Her work in this show was beyond explanation, and I couldn't be more proud of her.

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