Harper Regan by Simon Stephens: through a Greek lens

Gaye Taylor Upchurch

The first time I worked with Simon Stephens was on his play Bluebird. As we began our collaboration, I asked him about his impetus to write that play. He said it was really the same reason he wrote many of his plays: to explore something that terrifies him – to face a fear. So when we began our collaboration for Harper Regan at the Atlantic Theater in New York City in 2012, I asked him the same thing, expecting a similar answer. Instead he said, “I’d been reading a lot of Euripides.”

I confess that my knowledge and understanding about the Greeks was limited, but I had read Harper several times by then and not once had I thought of a Greek tragedy. So this answer was thrilling to me.

“What are you talking about Simon?”

He described some characteristics of a Euripidean tragedy that he had been drawn to and wanted to explore in his play: a single, ordinary character walks through the world; they are put in some kind of an extraordinary circumstance that forces a response; and the will of the gods plays out on that person.

Simon, however, was less interested in how the gods would enact their will on a person and more interested in how a person would respond in a godless environment: what does a Greek tragedy look like in a modern society where there are no gods? Where there is no God? What if it’s just Harper, out in the world, responding to her life circumstances? What then?

On my first reading of the play, while I did not think of Euripidean tragedy, I did think of Homer’s The Odyssey. In Harper Regan, a middle-aged woman who is a wife and the mother of a teenage daughter discovers she is in need of something that cannot be found at home with her family, so she strikes out into the world without telling them she’s going. For the most part she keeps her plans to herself so no one can talk her out of them. The structure of Harper Regan is an odyssey: we follow one woman’s journey through the world, she meets people along the way, and eventually returns home.

Seeing the odyssey of Harper through the lens of a Euripidean tragedy became the production’s organizing principle for me in the way I approached the material, particularly with regards to locating the center of grief and rage. The precipitating event that kicks off her journey is tragic but ordinary: her father is dying and she wants to see him in the hospital before he dies. As the play unfolds, we slowly learn the extraordinary circumstances of Harper’s life that she has been keeping to herself. We begin by learning that her boss won’t let her leave work to go see her dad. She goes home to tell her husband this news – we hope, as she does, that he will say you should go anyway. But he doesn’t. Instead, he reasons that she is the sole breadwinner and can’t afford to lose her job as he cannot work, for reasons that are not yet clear to us. And so she leaves. She defies her husband’s wishes. She, like a Greek hero, charts her own course.

When she arrives at the hospital, she meets a nurse and learns that her father has died the night before. She has missed saying goodbye. We watch the nurse fail to help her, and we can feel that Harper is more alone in the world than she realized. At this moment, something in her breaks.

In Anne Carson’s preface to Grief Lessons, her collection of translated Euripides tragedies, she says:

Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief…. Grief and rage – you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in grief and rage is good for you – may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? …. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.1

The actors and I spent a good deal of rehearsal time locating and getting incredibly specific about the grief and rage of the play. Mary McCann, who played Harper, threw herself into the abyss over and over to find the right calibration for where she is and when on her journey. Whether she is dealing with the sadness of a rift in her marriage, or her estranged mother, or the death of her father, or the injustice over what has happened to her, the play offers a series of griefs large and small for the actor to mine. We determined that the moment of her father’s death is at the epicenter of the tragedy as it brings all her other grievances and anger to the surface. We explored the layers of resentment that surrounded the circumstances of his death. Likening the play to a Greek tragedy gave us permission to dive deep into Harper’s desolation. She wept. She raged. As in many Greek plays when some of the main action happens off stage, the audience doesn’t actually see the moment when Harper discovers her father is dead. But we wanted to acknowledge the moment. We decided a gesture with the set design could help reveal an emotional truth, so we planned for Harper to knock down a large wall when she finds out, between scenes, that her father is dead. During the transition, we followed Harper to a large freestanding wall – she shoved it over in a fit of madness and grief, and the wall fell forward to become the floor for the next scene. Her rage mixed with grief came to a raw boil here and propelled her for the rest of her journey.

In the hospital, the pressures of her life erupt and she is once again set adrift.

Much as with my approach to the text, as the hospital example illustrates, the lens of a Euripides’ tragedy also became the organizing principle behind the production’s design. Imagining the Greek tragedies playing out in bare amphitheaters with minimal design, I began to contemplate a very open space. The scenic designer Rachel Hauck and I were excited by the idea of keeping the theater open to its brick walls, and leaving the beamed ceiling as exposed as possible.

Harper Regan, directed by GT Upchurch. Photo by Rachel Hauck.

Harper Regan, directed by GT Upchurch. Photo by Rachel Hauck.

Based on Simon’s descriptions of a Euripides protagonist walking through the world, I wanted to see Harper onstage every minute as she makes her journey. What if, instead of the design of the play shifting by unseen means like the hand of god or the fates, what if Harper was in control of manipulating the space, of determining for herself where she would go next?

We hit on the idea that each location could be achieved through a series of walls moving from lowest in the foreground to highest in the background which, when manipulated, would hide and reveal spaces as needed. The hope here was to place the power with Harper. She, rather than the gods, would dictate her next move, her next encounter. And as she moved forward, the set began to unfold like a piece of origami made out of Richard Serra-inspired walls. Finding a way to keep the theater open and yet still carve out space and scenery to delineate eight different locations – all of which could be manipulated by Harper – became our challenge. We knew that to make a modern interpretation of a Greek tragedy and include Simon’s idea of a godless world, finding a way to keep Harper navigating the landscape on her own would be of utmost importance.

Harper Regan, directed by GT Upchurch. Photo by Rachel Hauck.

Harper Regan, directed by GT Upchurch. Photo by Rachel Hauck.

Ultimately, Rachel Hauck the scenic designer and I concentrated on stripping each scene down to one essential element and finding one fluid gesture that Harper could perform to bring herself and us to the next scene. We discovered these singular items delivered what we were looking for: one rolling chair to represent the entire office, a narrow strip of stage separated from the rest of the space as the bridge – the parapet of which she pushed down to reveal a couch for the family home, a chair and box of Kleenex for the hospital, a counter that she lowered from the side wall for a bar, a sheer curtain that she pulled into place for the upscale hotel, a kitchen counter for her mother’s home, and, finally, tucked behind the giant walls at the back which she pulled open when she at last returned home, a patio breakfast table laden with food all in a garden with live green plants – the only scene which was not stark and spare.

She meets more strangers, manipulating the set as she goes. She pulls a counter from the wall to meet a stranger in a bar: an anti-Semite whom she stabs in the neck with a wine glass and leaves bleeding. She then pulls a curtain to create a chic hotel where she encounters a stranger from the Internet. They tell each other about their lives and it is in this moment that Harper opens up about her husband: he has been accused of being a pedophile and, because he’s now on a predator list, cannot get hired. She and the stranger make a connection. They sleep together. The next day, she goes to confront her mother who abandoned her after the incident with her husband. They have it out. Harper completes her odyssey by heading home where she must see her daughter and husband and account for her actions. In so doing, we realize Harper has become a more honest version of herself along the way – a woman who can now, at the very least, articulate what is on her mind, which is in stark contrast to Harper in the opening scenes. Whether this means her present life will be destroyed or maintained is up for grabs.

Harper Regan, directed by GT Upchurch. Photo by Rachel Hauck.

Harper Regan, directed by GT Upchurch. Photo by Rachel Hauck.

The play does not end in death or murder or suicide as Euripides’ tragedies do, but we have watched our ordinary hero torch the status quo of her existence in search of something more. She destroys the stability of her life, and the play ends before we learn the full consequences of her actions. Regardless of what will happen next, we know her actions have a power in them that will not easily be put back into a box. She is irrevocably changed.

Over the course of the run, I did a few talkbacks at the Atlantic Theater. I was struck by how polarizing the play was. I often experienced middle-aged women and older saying things like, “I just saw my life onstage”, and “I completely identify with Harper”. Mainly, they said they had never experienced a full journey of a woman extracting herself from her family, striking out on her own in quite this way. Many women confessed that leaving the family behind, if only for a day or two, was a fantasy, a taboo that they hardly dared to admit but were delighted to see played out on the stage – a fantasy made all the more complex given their connection to the grief and rage of a woman who would smash a wine glass into someone’s neck. But the opposite opinion was also in full force. Some people absolutely loathed Harper. They hated her for leaving, for taking her fate in her own hands and, most of all, for having an affair. Never mind that her husband is possibly a pedophile – his crime seemed much less.

The vehement reaction against Harper put me in mind of the afterword in Carson’s Grief Lessons – an essay, which she attributes to Euripides, entitled ‘Why I Wrote Two Plays About Phaidra’. In it, ‘Euripides’ is ostensibly trying to figure out the hatred that the audience has for Phaidra; he bemoans the fact that they hate her for love. ‘I don’t understand, I could never have predicted, your hatred of this woman. It’s true she fell in love with someone wrong for her but half the heroines of your literature do that…’2 Phaidra falls in love with her stepson, Harper has an affair with a man she meets online. Carson’s presumption that Euripides wrote a second play about Phaidra because she was so hated in the first incarnation I find both really fascinating and thoroughly depressing. Even if the essay is imagined, we do know that Euripides’s first version of Phaidra was a flop, most likely because a woman was sexually emboldened and pursued a lover (in this case her stepson) and was shunned by the audience.

Perhaps placing a woman realizing her own power onstage – and thereby becoming a controversial figure – was not where Simon Stephens thought his most striking similarity with Euripides would lie, but when I listened to the backlash against the amazing Harper, I heard the fear and loathing caused by a woman who takes her fate in her own hands. I asked myself: why is a woman with agency still such a scary notion? And I wondered how far we’d come, or not, from watching a different heroine a couple of thousand years ago.

 

Gaye Taylor Upchurch is a freelance director based in New York City. In addition to directing Simon Stephens’s Harper Regan (Atlantic Theater, NY Times Top Ten Production 2012) and Bluebird (Atlantic Theater, 2011), she has directed many world premieres including Clare Lizzimore’s Animal (Studio Theatre, DC; Helen Hayes Award nomination), Laura Marks’s Bethany (Women’s Project, Lortel nomination for Best New Play), and Melissa Ross’s Of Good Stock (South Coast Rep). Her work has been seen at Culture Project, La Mama, Juilliard, and Lincoln Center Institute, among others, and she has developed new work at The Vineyard, New Dramatists, Playwrights Realm, NY Stage & Film, The Kennedy Center, Playwright’s Center, LCT Director’s Lab, and SPACE on Ryder Farm.

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Notes:

  1. Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides (New York: New York Review of Books Classics, 2008), p. 7.
  2. Ibid, p. 309.

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