Every year the Thespian Playworks program brings four young playwrights to Lincoln, Nebraska to workshop their plays with a director, a dramaturg and student actors.
The staged readings at the end of the week are variously gripping, funny or thought-provoking. But once in a while a reading is such a freakish success that one can’t help but sit up and notice.
In 2012, there was such a reading. The play was Rachel Lepore’s wistful, one-act ghost story, Circuits.
Within a minute of the opening, the audience was laughing. At the end the audience was standing and – in some cases – weeping. Julie York-Coppens, who runs Playworks, had to hand to weave through the audience with Kleenex.
There’s much to praise in Circuits: characters we care about, sly dialogue, a compelling story. But to understand the power of the play, I need to talk about the very ending, and to do that I need to talk about Splash Mountain.
As you no doubt know, there are four mountain rides at Disneyland: the Matterhorn, Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and Splash Mountain.
Unless you’re under eight, the Matterhorn and Thunder Mountain aren’t worth the long lines.
Space Mountain is justifiably famous: a roller coaster in the dark that whips you past stars and a whirling galaxy.
But the best of the four is the log flume ride, Splash Mountain.
That’s because Splash Mountain is constructed like a story.
Like most stories, Splash Mountain begins by showing the world in its natural state. In this case, you float along past Song of the South forest creatures who cavort to that classic movie’s tunes. Soon though, you hit obstacles, mini-plunges. The world gets darker, scarier. Hoot owls and fireflies replace jumping fish and singing bears. You hear screams. They’re the screams of other riders as they plummet down the side of the mountain. You’ve known since you were standing in line that the climax of this story would be that plunge. A creaky chain yanks you up the final bit of mountain. Right near the top – my favorite detail – a pair of vultures peer down and hiss: “everybody’s got a laughin’ place.” Then down you go, that thrilling wet drop and – as you knew you would – you find that you’ve survived.
But wait! The ride’s not over. Instead of arriving at some sad little disembarking station, your log turns a corner and behold; there’s a giant bonus room of woodland creatures singing more joyfully than ever, singing about the laughing place. It’s your reward for having taken the journey.
In other words, what makes the ride so satisfying is the denouement: the surprising, satisfying resolution to the story.
Which brings us back to Circuits.
Circuits tells the story of a high school student named Renee and her deceased-but- lingering brother, Jack. We surmise from early on that the play will be over when Jack’s spirit leaves for good. And that’s essentially what happens.
But Lepore smartly gives us a lovely denouement.
Rather than having Jack say goodbye and wander off into the light, Lepore takes her time. She calls back details from earlier in the play. She shows us that Renee will be all right.
Best of all, she gives the siblings a surprising, resonant moment together.
It’s that unexpected moment—the bonus room—that gives the play its emotional punch, that had Julie running from audience member to audience member handing out tissues.
The next time you write a play, try to write Splash Mountain. And the next time you need a play, check out LePore’s Circuits, available from Samuel French.Follow @playwrightnow