It’s a convenient trope in the Age of Trump to locate the beginnings of our unshakeable red-state/blue-state polarity in the Age of Reagan. Doug Hughes, who is directing Ayad Akhtar’s Junk, situated squarely in the Ron-and-Nancy era, does not see the story as quite so starkly divided into unchanging points of view.
During a recent rehearsal break, Hughes told me: “Junk doesn’t require you to get behind one or two characters or one or two viewpoints right away. It’s one of those plays – which are usually my favorite kind – in which you tend to agree with whomever has spoken last. As I worked on the play, and as Ayad has worked on the play, I became less and less inclined to think of it as a tale that has utterly righteous heroes and absolutely depraved villains. I hope that as an audience watches the play that its sympathies are fluid.”
Hughes’s view of the play’s ethics has evolved a bit, but his notion of its center has not. “I’ve always felt that this play – and it’s a phrase that Ayad and I have used from the beginning – is about how the money guys got our minds. When I was graduating from college” – Harvard – “in the late ‘70s, there wasn’t such a fascination with Wall Street, with numbers. Financiers didn’t have the celebrity status they seem to have now. The cult of the CEO or the corporate raider or the high-powered investment banker as the titans of our world hadn’t solidified.”
I asked Hughes about Akhtar’s use of Shakespeare’s history plays as inspirations for Junk. And I mentioned my conviction that those plays are more vital to contemporary playwrights examining recent events than the revered tragedies or the imaginative comedies. Hughes agreed. Why? “First of all, there’s the brilliance of construction, and then the speed at which information is delivered. There are the multiple intertwining plot lines, which is a great template for handling stories of complexity.”
Hughes added: “And just as Shakespeare wrote about the War of the Roses much later, during the Elizabethan era, authors like Ayad are writing about the 1980s thirty years later. He reminds us that we come from somewhere.” Borrowing a notion from Akhtar, who uses it in “A Note on Setting” in Junk’s script, Hughes said that he looks on the play as “an origin story.” Hughes added: “The play gets at the forces that really do seem to be running our lives right now, and when those forces began to coalesce.”
And what is Hughes’s own origin story? He is the son of the actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg. After stints as associate artistic director of Seattle Rep and as the artistic director at Long Wharf, he received his first Tony nomination, in 2004, for the direction of Frozen (the ORIGINAL Frozen: a play by Bryony Lavery). The following year, he went on to win a Tony for directing Doubt.
Judging from this record, plays with one-word titles are especially lucky for Hughes: we would, to lapse back into Shakespeare, have to “defy augury” to break the pattern with Junk. While waiting for that outcome, Hughes is adjusting the play from its acclaimed production last year at La Jolla for LCT’s Vivian Beaumont.
He explained: “There are many ideas that worked well in La Jolla, where we had a great time and we had the luxury of going around the block with this. The Beaumont stage is a theater where the patrons can see themselves. That public-forum aspect is marvelous for this play. Even more than before, the play will be coming straight at the audience.” Hughes went on: “We’ve expanded on ideas that we used in La Jolla. The height of the set is friendlier to an audience at the Beaumont than it was in La Jolla. And I think the steep rake of the house will have a great rapport with the set’s upper levels, which is, to go back yet again to Shakespeare, a kind of “enter, above.” That’s a very old trick, made a bit shinier and newer.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.