As we continue to deal with the dark cloud of the COVID pandemic, Palm Beach Dramaworks wants us to look back 20 years to another tragic time in our history — September 11, 2001 — the day two airplanes flew into the Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan and 3,000 lives were lost. It is the event that motivates Bruce Graham’s drama The Duration, receiving its world premiere at PBD on Friday, Feb. 18.
It is a play about loss, grief and ultimately hope, as Graham considers the national tragedy of 9/11 through the personal tragedy of history professor Audrey Batten and her daughter Emma. Having lost her son — Emma’s twin brother — in the terrorist attack, Audrey abruptly leaves her university job and moves to a remote cabin in the Pennsylvania mountains, much to the chagrin of Emma, who leads a grief counseling group in New York City.
To prepare to immerse themselves in the play, director J. Barry Lewis felt it was important to have his three-member cast recall their experiences of 9/11. “On the first day of rehearsal we asked the oldest question in the world — Where were you on that day? And we started to talk about that,” he says. “And 20 years later, where are we now? Have we learned, have we grown, have we been able to look beyond pointing fingers and blaming.”
Elizabeth Dimon, who plays Audrey, recalls that she was at her Lake Worth Beach home watching The Today Show on television. “I saw the second plane hit. I was so naïve I thought the plane must have gotten so confused with the smoke and hit the building by accident,” she says. “I realize how naïve that is. As a nation we were naïve. We thought no one is going to touch us. We’re too big.”
Caitlin Duffy, who plays Audrey’s daughter Emma, was only 8 at the time of the attacks. That fateful Tuesday, she was in elementary school in rural Vermont. “I don’t remember a ton but my family had a three-person bicycle and I remember my dad picked up me and my older sister on the bicycle and told us what had happened,” she recalls. “I think I had a pretty limited understanding, but I became quite anxious about planes in the sky. I had very little understanding of what terrorism was, but I was just really anxious about it.”
Duffy, who will be making her PBD debut, was initially hesitant about doing The Duration. “To be frank, I’m wary of 9/11 plays, because they can so miss the mark,” she explains. “But I think (Graham) does a beautiful job with the relationship between Emma and Audrey, and explores grief in a really authentic way. I mean, everybody deals with grief differently and that’s clear in this play. Emma and Audrey kind of need to heal on their own, but they also need each other to heal. It’s a play about grief and loss and healing, but it’s also about how we got here in terms of xenophobia and racism and hate in this country, and I think he deals with that in a beautiful thoughtful way too.”
Dimon is a veteran of many Dramaworks productions. The Duration marks the 14th play she has done with director Lewis, but her first Graham play.
“He’s a very good writer. This play has such a strong beginning, middle and end. You see this whole thing unwind, over a period of weeks. You see the progression, you see the culmination and then you see, I think, quite a bit of hope at the end,” she says. “It’s not tied up with a bow, which I like very much. You’re not sure how they’re going to be, but there is hope.
“To look at 9/11 from 20 years on is fascinating, because it was such a global thing that happened. Other countries were reaching out to us. That was such an amazing time and yet the grief was immense. And all the collective guilt, the survivor guilt. But knowing that you were feeling it with the whole country was really something.”
Mounting this new play in the midst of the COVID pandemic and so soon after the milestone anniversary of 9/11 kept the ties between the two events on everyone’s mind. “Those parallels are undeniable. And Bruce brings them to mind without hammering them home,” says Dimon. “There’s a wonderful line in the play where I say, ‘Nothing we can do right now is going to make this any better.’ And I say, ‘Y’know what, 20, 30 years from now people are still going to be angry and the bastards are going to use it.’ And we’ve seen it, right? They’ve used this pandemic to divide, divide, divide, just as was done with 9/11.”
Asked to describe her character, Duffy says of Emma, “She’s fiercely independent, she’s way more like her mother than she cares to admit, and that’s a point of contention in the play. And she’s really, really hurting and trying to wade through that. And she’s feeling quite alone for so much of the play. She developed this shell — like we all do — to move through the world and be OK in the world. Her whole world has been uprooted and she’s trying to figure out how to move forward.”
And Dimon says of Audrey, “She’s very smart, very bright, very educated, very liberal. She’s very factual, because she’s a history professor. She deals in facts, and that’s so much of her personality. She’s not warm and nurturing. Her lack of warmth is how she sees the world. It’s not that she doesn’t love her daughter, but she brought her up to be tough, because this is a tough world and this is how you have to get through it. If you look at the world through history, this is how things go. And because of that, when something happens that’s so horrific and the grief is so deep, she doesn’t know where to put it. And she doesn’t have anybody to reach out to because she keeps everybody at arm’s length.
“And now, she takes herself up to this cabin and kind of hibernates and goes down rabbit holes. Then through the course of the play, she finally gets to the gut of her feelings and is able to say them out loud. And as we know that’s what therapy is about. Once you’re able to say it out loud, then you can really look at it and address it.”
The Duration is an emotional journey for the audience, yet Graham never lets it be unrelentingly gloomy. “He knows how to create humor within scenes that you might not otherwise think are humorous,” says Lewis. “I think he understands that life is not one thing. That we laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.”
Although the play is set two decades ago, its themes are very timely. “There absolutely are connections between 9/11 and the pandemic and this play helps make that clear,” says Duffy. “We’ve all gone through a huge shift and everybody’s grieving, I think, on some level in their own way. Maybe this will help people feel a little less alone in that grief.”
THE DURATION, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Wednesday, Feb. 16 to Sunday, March 6. $59 to $79. 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.