After a successful run last summer with Wax Wings Productions, Cassie M. Seinuk’s acclaimed Eyes Shut. Door Open has returned to Boston for a limited run through May 26.
A modern take on the story of Cain and Abel, Eyes Shut. Door Open is a vivid, altogether moving new play about two brothers whose lives have taken two dramatically different paths following a shared tragedy.
Seinuk has certainly entered my radar as one to watch, and if Eyes Shut. Door Open is any indication of the kind of work that’s to come from her, the Boston theater community just got a whole lot richer.
Tell me about the history of this play.
The show actually began as a short story; I wrote it back in college. I wrote a couple of iterations of it and it never felt right to me. When I later became a playwright and was in grad school, I brought it in to workshop as a one-act play. My mentor, Jami Brandli at Lesley University, was like, “This is a really great play that you’re trying to cram into 30 minutes.” And then Wax Wings was looking for plays to do readings of, and I sent them the play, and they said, “This is totally us.” I think that they tend toward things that have mythic backstories or that relate to either something that’s in mythology or biblical or fairy tales. I consider this play kind of a modern Cain and Abel story. They did a reading and when it came time to do my thesis at Lesley, I had to pick two full-length plays to spend a year developing, and this was one of the plays I chose to work on. I got a call from Kevin Kordis at Wax Wings and he said, “Hey, we want to produce your show this summer.” What! But you don’t know anything about it until you’re really in rehearsal, especially the first time around. We kind of went from there. [Actor] Mike Underhill has been with the play for almost five years, which is crazy. I think Victor Shopov has been working with me on this for about three, and Melissa [de Jesus] for about two years. There is a lot of ownership that these actors have taken on with this piece as well.
How does it feel to return to something so regularly over such a long period of time?
We all love each other at this point. Something that our director, Christopher Randolph, has been saying a lot is that all of us have grown and changed in the past eight [or] nine months; we’re not the same people we were in August when this was on its feet last, so it’s interesting to kind of come back into it with that new perspective.
Where did this play come from?
That’s a loaded question. Before the time of GPS, I was driving in Westchester County, which I’m not familiar with. I was going to see a show that I had done some graphic design work for, and I was totally lost in this very suburban part of Westchester. I pulled my car over and I pulled out my paper folded map from the back of my car and I realized that I was at the juncture between Turner and Palmer Streets. I kind of sat there for a while and I was like, “Oh, those are great names! Who are those people?” And then I took this class in college that was basically an adolescent literature class; it went from the early fairy tales up to Harry Potter. We spent a good amount of time talking about “The Sandman,” the original short story, and I was really, really interested in this guy who was just haunted by what had happened. I was really into that and that’s sort of where I was when I wrote this short story. That’s kind of the heady stuff; the gut stuff is that I’m a visual artist, and I’ve always been fascinated by what we, as writers, or painters, or musicians, what inspires us to do what we do. If we’re inspired by tragedy and that tragedy isn’t our own tragedy, is that okay? If I’m painting and I’m doing something on genocide in Africa, is that my story to tell? Where’s the ownership in that? And the way it kind of goes in the play with Turner and Palmer is that, can Turner paint Palmer’s tragedy? Or can he paint his father’s tragedy and how that haunts him? As a person and as a writer, I’m really interested in writing about trauma recovery. I hate the word “survivor,” but I have post-traumatic stress disorder from a pretty shitty abusive relationship a long time ago, and a lot of what I write about tends to be part of my own processing of what happened to me, and kind of how people respond to trauma. One of the things Turner does, which I think is very true of trauma survivors, is to kind of bury it and constantly layer their pain in either a facade or in something else.
It is interesting that there’s this shared trauma between the brothers, yet one makes a career out of it and the other can’t function because of it.
That’s human nature. You’re going to go one way or the other way. I find that really exciting to explore.
It’s also kind of a ghost story.
Oh, yeah, it is. That’s part of my interest in exploring trauma on stage and what it does to us. I find it a little magical, when we kind of flip into these little trigger episodes.
Are you inspired a lot by classical theater?
I’m actually not! [laughs] It took me a long time to get into Shakespeare and to get into more classical literature like Chekhov and Ibsen and stuff like that because it’s so hard to digest. When I started working as stage manager for Actors’ Shakespeare Project, it was the first time that I was really experiencing Shakespeare in a way that felt tangible to me. I was like, “Ooh! Ooh!” I’m such a sucker for Hamlet, I think partially because I do lean towards these tortured-soul young male characters. It’s sort of my playwriting vice. Hamlet and the Scottish Play [Macbeth], also—there’s so much menace and trauma and at the same time these people are hurting, and they have something that they’re fighting for. The playwrights and the plays that I find the most inspiration from are a lot the Irish plays. I’m really into Martin McDonagh. I lived in Ireland for six months and I really got into Beckett. Brian Friel is another Irish playwright that I just love.
Blindness plays a big role in the play. Of course, it reminded me of Oedipus, which is why I asked about classical theater.
Oedipus was also one of the first plays I read in college. Again, those old Greek plays, they’re hard for me to read. But I think the mythic stuff, which I feel like Oedipus really goes into, those mythic characters, that kind of goes back to [when I] went to a Hebrew day school growing up, so I learned the Bible. When I really think about this play, it’s the Cain and Abel story. I go back to these Bible stories, which do have these very mythic natures to them. That’s how I see them. I see them more as mythology at this point. And I love East of Eden, the Steinbeck book. It’s my favorite, favorite book. That’s another modern interpretation of the Cain and Abel story, and how it can be repetitive, how that brother/sibling rivalry stuff can keep repeating if it’s never corrected.
EYES SHUT. DOOR OPEN. THROUGH 5.26. WAREHOUSE XL, 11 SANBORN CT., SOMERVILLE. EYESSHUTDOOROPEN.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.