This past weekend was a mournful one. Bill Nunn, the man who gave life to Radio Raheem, the iconic character of Spike Lee’s ferocious, seminal “Do the Right Thing”, who recited the majestic monologue about love ko’ing hate, which seems that much more massive in America 2016, died at age 63 from leukemia. Then an ascending Major League Baseball pitcher, Jose Fernandez, who made a hair-raising defection from Cuba to America, perished in a boating accident. I confess I am not a connoisseur of baseball and so I really only knew Mr. Fernandez’s name vaguely, but in reading about him afterwards and learning of his transcendent talent it was hard not to see this terribly untimely passing in the same light as Len Bias. Those two deaths were so wrenching it was easy to overlook Stanley Dural Jr., Buckwheat Zydeco himself, who passed away from lung cancer. In the New York Times Jon Pareles wrote that “Mr. Dural became the face of zydeco for many listeners far beyond the music’s Gulf Coast regional circuit” and that was certainly true for me. I had no idea what Zydeco was until a couple decades and a few years ago I stumbled upon a Mountain Stage recording of my dad’s that featured Buckwheat Zydeco and I thought “What is this? I like this.”
All this loss of life then was rattling around in my head as I went to see David Rabe’s new play “Visiting Edna” at Steppenwolf Theater here in Chicago on Sunday night. It centers on Edna (Debra Monk), ravaged by cancer, and her son Andrew (Ian Barford) who comes home to visit for what he does not necessarily know will be the last time. It can be a heavy play, with Edna’s cancer literalized in the form of an actor (Tim Hopper) who haunts the edges and inserts himself into the proceedings, a vicious evocation of how cancer gets personal. Yet Rabe does not overly wallow in the dire circumstances. Indeed, there emerges a kind of benign monotony in the conversations and interactions between mother and son as they attempt to find little ways to connect and as we come to realize that over the years these two missed so many attempts at these sorts of connections.
Memories hang over the entire play. There is a moment when mother and son take a day trip to another city to see a specialist and upon returning they explain how it went via a telephone call, the mother and son taking turns talking to a family friend, like it’s an old Bob Newhart Show bit. And what emerges is just how much mother and son enjoyed themselves. It hardly matters whether the specialist they saw can make any difference; the trip itself was the thing, this sudden flash, and how that is something the son realizes he will cling to, this sudden memory that is made. Will this memory be enough to sustain him? The play refrains from saying.
I thought about that when I came home and discovered that Arnold Palmer had died. Just as I am not a connoisseur of baseball, I am not an aficionado of golf, but you don’t have to be an aficionado of golf to know Arnold Palmer. How often do you have two Wikipedia entries bearing your name, one for yourself, one for the drink that borrowed your moniker? Heck, I’m pretty sure I knew Arnold Palmer first as the guy in the Hertz commercial opposite O.J. Simpson. That commercial inevitably popped up in Brett Morgen’s ESPN documentary “June 17, 1994”, a sensational rumination that forewent any kind of narration to instead chronicle the events of the titular day, which included, though were not limited to, the infamous O.J. Simpson bronco chase and Arnold Palmer’s final round at the U.S. Open. The latter is a solemnly melancholy affair, where the past-his-prime Palmer is left to chip haplessly over greens and putt way past holes. It is painful to witness because even if you don’t understand golf the emitted emotional torture is universal.
But there is a moment in “June 17, 1994”, in the midst of all this slow-moving heartbreak, when Morgen cuts from 1994 Palmer in mid-swing to 1953 in Palmer in mid-swing. It is a beautifully weird moment, this sudden flashing back to the past, where Palmer is so full of joy, overflowing with golfing genius. In that grainy black & white footage it looks so distant even as it feels so alive, the strange paradox of all memories, I suppose, where it is difficult to really know if What Happened Back Then is any consolation for What Is Going On Right Now. And then, as quickly as they drop in, those monochromatic memories dissipate, leaving us once again in the movie’s present with Palmer’s current struggle. By forgoing voiceover and, by extension, forgoing explanations of any kind Morgen leaves it up to us, just as Rabe leaves it to us, which feels less like a copout than the stone cold truth. They are either/or, perhaps, all the time. Good memories are worth so much, but somehow never quite enough.