By Mike Fischer for Forward Theater Company
The title of playwright Anna Ziegler’s play The Wanderers, receiving its Wisconsin premiere in a Forward Theater production running from September 8-25 at the Overture Center – doesn’t refer to Philip Kaufman’s beloved 1979 film about gangs in New York.
Invoking the 40-year biblical exile of Jews in the desert trying to find their way to the promised land, Ziegler’s play is instead about our restless, lifelong search for more than we already have. About why we’re never entirely happy with where and who we are. About why we always want more.
Asked in an interview to describe the thematic thread running through her plays, Ziegler pointed to the “emotional minefield of ambition and of wanting. How the quest for meaning and our place in the world can come to feel like a prison” in which “nothing is ever enough.”
As renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel writes, in a passage Ziegler has included as one of the epigraphs for this play, “there is always a suspicion . . . that one is living a lie or a mistake; that something crucially important has been overlooked, missed, neglected, left untried and unexplored; that a vital obligation to one’s own authentic self has not been met.”
Restless in Brooklyn
Perel views this restlessness as the inevitable result of the tension between our desire for security – in our jobs and our relationships, in who we imagine ourselves to be as well as what we believe – and our lifelong journey of self-discovery. We want to be perpetually happy where we already are. But there’s also a part of us that wants to die on the move, with all our options open.
As The Wanderers makes clear, these seemingly opposed paths – to either keep one’s world exactly as it is or to escape any world that compromises an illusory autonomy – are both utopias that live outside of time. For all their apparent differences, they each reflect our fear of death; pursuing either path risks destroying our ability to live meaningful lives in the present.
Ziegler lets us see how through her portrait of two Brooklyn marriages.
We first meet Esther and Schmuli in 1973, on the day of their arranged wedding within their Hasidic community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Neither of them are entirely at home in this world. Do the figurative walls surrounding their lives keep them safe? Or do those walls imprison them within smaller versions of who they might be in the wider world?
We first meet Abe and Sophie in 2015. Also Jewish and living in Brooklyn, they are one decade and two children into their marriage, itself the continuation of a friendship stretching back to childhood. Secular and largely rootless, they’ve lived their entire lives beyond the boundaries marking Esther and Schmuli’s world.
Is Abe and Sophie’s comparative freedom an improvement on the lives lived by the preceding generation? Or is such freedom just another word for nothing left to lose, leaving them vulnerable as they search for purpose and meaning?
As Abe flirts online with a movie star who’d come to one of his book readings, he longs to discover “a less cynical version” of himself who might “believe in something.” Meanwhile, Sophie struggles to retain her belief in Abe and her marriage, as well as her career and her life.
Abe’s online exchanges with actor Julia Cheever underscore how easy it is to “imagine living other lives,” as Julia puts it, when we go online – escaping into a virtual world that hollows out the real, inevitably messier one in which we actually live.
Abe tries to excuse his email flirtation with Julia as “just two adults approaching middle age with access to Wi-Fi who derive some small satisfaction from seeing what words the other one has to say.” He imagines himself simply wanting “to generate the kinds of small excitements that break up routines and give a person something to look forward to.”
Exhibiting the empathy she regularly displays for all of her characters, Ziegler makes it easy to understand why and how Abe loses his way, in a virtual world lightyears removed from the wife and kids in the next room.
But Ziegler also never loses sight of how deeply sad such online wandering can be.
Does the apparent freedom that now allows us to be anywhere ultimately mean that we’re nowhere? Relentlessly distracted by our phones from our everyday lives, how can we maintain our connections with those who share those lives in real time?
Always more interested in posing hard questions than offering easy answers, Ziegler is much too good a playwright to suggest that we solve our problems with the modern world by ignoring it.
Difficult as Abe and Sophie’s lives and marriage can be in a wired world without walls, Ziegler is just as aware that the world Esther and Schmuli inhabit behind those walls – in which even the radio is viewed as a threat to a cherished way of life – poses its own challenges. Esther and Schmuli may live in a closely knit community, but they’re also radically alone and lost.
Rather than choosing between these Brooklyn marriages, Ziegler instead wonders whether we might choose both, simultaneously recognizing the value of both freedom and security – the Odyssean ability to leave the comfort of what we know and, enriched by what we’ve experienced and discovered, eventually come back home.
In Ziegler’s recent play The Great Moment (2019), an autobiographical character named Sarah describes this relationship between self, home, and the world as living “inside and outside the moment at the same time,” in a dialectical engagement that preserves individual freedom while acknowledging responsibilities to friends, family, and community.
“You have to pay attention to me,” Sarah’s child says to her, on the last page of the play. “This is the only now there is.” The play then closes with mother and son singing a song about – wait for it – taking a journey. “Wander, by all means,” Ziegler seems to tell us. But pay close attention as you do, to both the people in your lives and the world through which you walk, hand in hand.
For more information regarding and tickets to The Wanderers, visit https://forwardtheater.com/show/the-wanderers.