Thursday, March 20, 2008

Amazing Discovery: Joseph Kramm’s The Shrike

It plays out like a modern movie. A man, in a moment of desperation, attempts suicide. After failing, he finds himself in a mental institution with only his estranged wife to comfort him, not to mention to keep his new girlfriend at bay. With his estranged wife bearing sole legal power to free him from the confines of state custody, he grows increasingly agitated at being a sane man in an institution, as his wife begins to peel away all his connections to the outside world.

Over a year ago, I stumbled upon an old Random House copy of Joseph Kramm’s 1952 Pulitzer Prize-winning play in a used book store on a search for rare musical libretti. Not wanting to leave empty-handed, I grabbed The Shrike on a whim, knowing nothing about it. The play was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer, who also starred as Jim Downs, the man whose life hangs in the balance. According to the book Show Time, Ferrer won the Tony for the role and later brought it to the screen in 1955 opposite June Allyson. The play itself ran for 161 performances and also starred Judith Evelyn as his desperate wife and Isabel Bonner as the female psychologist Dr. Barrow whose feminine perspective inadvertently imprisons him longer.

The story begins as a curious depiction of a man facing a life of broken dreams but emerges as a tense observation of a woman desperate to escape loneliness, despite her mutual consent to the condition. By Act Two, it is unclear exactly why Jim is in the hospital—Is he really, indeed, mentally unstable, or is he being driven there by a system that requires him to give up sanity in order to appear sane. In reading, The Shrike becomes a page-turner.

In all my years of bookstore shopping, in all my years of keeping an eye on plays, I’ve never seen The Shrike before. If you’re into reading plays, particularly in search of something of high interest for your theatre group, check out The Shrike.

From Dictionary.com:

shrike (noun)— any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat. any of numerous predaceous oscine birds of the family Laniidae, having a strong, hooked, and toothed bill, feeding on insects and sometimes on small birds and other animals: the members of certain species impale their prey on thorns or suspend it from the branches of trees to tear it apart more easily, and are said to kill more than is necessary for them to eat.

the Broadway Mouth
March 20, 2008