Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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In Theatrical Stag’s Leap, Poetry of Pain Leaps Off the Page

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

Sharon Olds didn’t write Stag’s Leap for the stage. Her 2012 book of poems is a piercingly intimate, at times erotic, chronicle of betrayal, heartbreak, divorce and persistent longing, as its narrator travels through the collapse of a nearly 30-year marriage and the wreckage that lies beyond it.

Most readers — and there have been many since the book won both the Pulitzer and TS Eliot 2013 prizes for poetry — have come to Stag’s Leap individually, through the printed work. Far fewer people have had the chance to hear the poetry in a theatrical performance of Stag’s Leap that visited the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse on Oct. 26 and Oct. 27.

Conceived and directed by Nancy Borgenicht of Utah’s Salt Lake Acting Company, the stage version of Stag’s Leap stars five actresses who share the role of Ms. Olds’s narrator, addressing the audience directly from a minimal stage set.

Each of the women onstage at the playhouse held a copy of Stag’s Leap, but they were not reading or reciting the poems, they were inhabiting them, each one fully becoming the woman who mistook her husband for a lifelong lover.

Some poems in the Stag’s Leap show are shared among all the performers, others are solo turns. Ms. Borgenicht wisely avoids assigning individual personality traits to the actresses. Instead of reflecting one element of the narrator’s character, each woman on stage moves between moments of lovesickness, remembered lust, social embarrassment, despair and ultimately, resignation and a measure of recovery.

The result is a flow of poetic narrative unbroken by time, a book made of human voices that’s literally impossible to put down.

At the playhouse, actress Shannon Musgrave bounced up and down on a bed with cracked glee as she performed Left-Wife Goose, in which the heart-wrecked speaker invents her own nursery rhymes when the world no longer makes sense: “Had an egg cow, had a cream hen/ Had a husband, could not keep him.”

Musgrave and her castmates Meg Gibson, Tamara Howell, Valerie Kittel and Alexandra Neil also brought to life the character’s aching physical nostalgia for her husband and the loss of confidence that makes her question herself: Should she have refrained from writing poems about her love? Did he leave her because she was “not quiet enough in bed?”

Flashes of bitter humor recur, as when the narrator imagines her ex-husband and his new love, both doctors, “like storks with the doctor bags of like-loves-like dangling from their beaks.”

In Poem for the Breasts, performed by the ensemble, she compares hers to “twin widows, /heavy with grief,” and later snarls “they are waiting for him, my Christ they are dumb, they do not even/ know they are mortal—sweet, I guess,/ refreshing to live with, beings without/ the knowledge of death, creatures of ignorant suffering.”

In Pain I Did Not, the narrator understands that her husband “had come, in private, to/ feel he was dying, with me,” and that “my job is to eat the whole car /of my anger, part by part, some parts/ ground down to steel dust.”

But there are years, and many more poems, ahead before that job is done.

Ms. Olds attended the playhouse performances, in her first visit to Martha’s Vineyard since her marriage ended in the late 1990s. During a post-show reception Saturday, she answered an audience member’s question about her ex-husband by saying that she has vowed never to speak publicly about her family.

But the poet was happy to talk about the theatrical Stag’s Leap and the five women who embodied her words onstage.

“It’s like having five twins,” she said. “I’m so touched, I’m so moved and I’m so strengthened by everyone’s company.

“I’m going to miss you so much, my sisters,” she told the actresses. “It’s like retrospectively a family of sisters around me, and I felt the same way about everyone who is here tonight.

“Art is like that, isn’t it? Family and connection and strengths,” Ms. Olds added, as listeners murmured in agreement.

Saturday’s Vineyard audience included a friend and former poetry student of Ms. Olds, Rose Styron.

“I worked with her at Omega Institute” Ms. Styron said. “Her encouragement was so great.”

Ms. Styron said she was enjoying hosting the Stag’s Leap cast and crew on their current visit.

Also in the audience were two women who divide their time between the Vineyard and Utah, where the stage work originated: painter Susan Swartz, whose large abstract Nature Revisited was displayed in the stage setting, and Academy and Emmy award-winning film producer Geralyn Dreyfous, who was first to recommend that the playhouse present Stag’s Leap.

Stag’s Leap closed the theatrical season for the playhouse, but events will continue throughout the year, including the Poetry Café, hosted by Arnie Reisman, which returns on Nov. 8 at 8 p.m. with Jill Jupen, Clark Myers, Donald Nitchie and Fan Ogilvie.

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