What a time to be putting out new work.
No time is easy, but especially as we’re in the thick of a global pandemic with other social and societal viruses sweeping the country, this is an incredibly turbulent time. That said, it’s also a time where we need art more than ever. To empathize, connect, and help us outwardly validate our emotions and thoughts.
Catastrophes happen. It is an unfortunate, awful, and undeniable truth. Some are manmade and they don’t always need to happen, but they do. If you’re over the age of 18, the likelihood is you have some memory of September 11, 2001. If you’re a New Yorker (like myself) then you probably have chilling memories of this horrendous day — you probably know someone who’s life was dramatically impacted for the worse, if not your own. For the vast majority of people in the United States and across the world, have you ever thought about what it was like to lose a loved one in this brutal act of terror? Playwright Matthew Lopez (The Inheritance) strives to explore that unthinkable situation in his new one-act, The Sentinels.
Lopez opens the play on September 11, 2011. Ten years after the attack on the Twin Towers. We meet two women, Alice (Jane Alexander) and a very pregnant Kelly (Denée Benton) who we can assume is considerably younger than Alice, who are sitting in a traditional New York coffee shop. Within the first moments, we are fully aware of the fact that they came from a memorial service commemorating the lives of those lost ten years prior to the September 11th attacks. Alice points out that the “milestone” of ten years of loss is really no different than any year, nor does it feel any different, but it’s just a round number that “people like”. The two briefly discuss “the other wives” (specifically one named Christa) over blueberry pancakes, which sets up the rest of the play.
Lopez uses time as a barometer for coping with grief. Throughout the years, we see one central character, Alice, at this coffeeshop. She’s dedicated, we also learn that she views her loss as the nation’s loss and carries that weight on her back. Throughout the decade, we see the coffeeshop empty, we meet Christa (Katrina Lenk) and Kelly. It’s become clear that all three mourn and cope with grief in their own ways.
Christa uses whiskey as her vice and is dealing with the pressures of being a single mother in the wake of September 11, which has caused feelings of resentment. Kelly after a few years met a man, Jeremy. She moved away from New York but hasn’t forgotten the memory of her first husband, Steve. Kelly makes it clear to Alice that Jeremy was actually the one who convinced her to return to New York for the 10-year reunion.
One pivotal conversation was had on September 11, 2009, between Alice and the waitress (Priscilla Lopez) who’s name she doesn’t know. The two have an earnest discussion about how you can be familiar with someone and their intentions without knowing their name. During this conversation, we learn two important elements — the waitress refers to Alice as her “Once a Year Widow” and that it was noticeable that her friends weren’t with her. This highlights two themes throughout the one-act: the importance of a name and the importance of intention.
Grief and time. These are two surefire factors that most everyone will face at some point in their lifetime. The two are related, as grieving tends to change forms with time — it doesn’t make the grief any less important or valid, people just adapt. The presentation of the passage of time (direction by Rebecca Taichman, Indecent) was aided in the digital age by having the year on title cards as presented via Zoom. It depicted the personal struggles and growth in an efficient way, utilizing the element of time as a natural storyteller in and of itself.
Theatre has the unique power that allows words to transcend meaning, no matter the medium on which they’re being presented — whether words are read from a script, a fully staged production in front of a live audience, or now a reading via Zoom or a Google Hangouts, theatre is not canceled. I wanted to conclude with that to commend MCC for their impressive and noble efforts to continue to work with artists during these trying times to produce new thought-provoking works that are accessible for all through the ongoing Live Labs: One Acts series. For more information on upcoming readings and their season, please visit: https://mcctheater.org/