Even though the rehearsal room for South Pacific is located as deep in the bowels of Lincoln Center Theater as a bomb shelter, it is not cut off from the outside world - especially not in an election year.
This week, as the cast moved from the completion of basic blocking to a more intense exploration of individual scenes, talk of Obama and Clinton could be heard frequently during breaks. One of the subjects implied in this discussion -- what is America's image of itself? -- relates to LCT's re-creation of South Pacific. So I turned to director Bartlett Sher for his views.
He had many of them -- not surprising for a man about whom the production's Bloody Mary, Loretta Ables Sayre, says, affectionately, "There are always so many thoughts competing inside his head: it's a little suspenseful to see which one will make it out of his mouth."
Regarding the relevance of South Pacific to events in America in 2008, Sher said frankly: "I would say that, more than any single piece I've ever worked on, as an American artist I have been impressed by the depth and resonance and contemporary intelligence of the piece."
Pressed for specifics, Sher focused less on matters like race (though of course that plays a big part in the story) than the question of what America was in the 1940s versus what the country is in 2008. "How do we think about all that now?" Sher asked. I observed that, in 1942, America was revving up to become the world's greatest military power, whereas at the moment many observers believe that we may be winding down as the world's greatest power.
Sher replied, "We are a descendant power. There's no way around that. But the biggest difference that strikes me in viewing South Pacific as a national memory play involves what's going on in the lives then and now of the people who watch it. In order to understand the world of South Pacific you have to have an innate understanding of national sacrifice.
"You have to realize that as a nation in the 1940s we were all involved in the same struggle. We were all connected to the same thing. And the one thing we know now is that we are never connected to the same thing. We have almost no idea that there's a war going on, we don't feel connected to it, we don't feel any sense of shared sacrifice -- none of it.
"As a result, we cannot make any coherent decisions about what's important. That to me is the most surprising difference I'm finding in South Pacific in terms of then versus now. It's so different now in who we are and where we come from. What's interesting about any classic is that when you return to it you learn more about yourself."
BRENDAN LEMON is the American theater critic for the Financial Timesand the editor of lemonwade.com.