Shirley, Vermont is a diverse community with a high school large enough to employ college counselors and offer courses in cultural awareness. It has a state university, the Green Sheep coffee shop, at least one McDonald's, and White Pines, the historic home of a famous Vermont poet, Elizabeth Collins. You won't find Shirley among the 251 towns in Vermont, however, because it is the creation of Annie Baker, the fictitious home to the characters and the action in four plays which comprise her "Vermont Plays" (Theatre Communications Group, 2012).
Baker is an American theater phenomenon — a 36-year-old who has already won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, three Obie Awards for Best New American Play, a fistful of Drama Critics Award nominations, and in 2017, a MacArthur grant, often called the "genius award."
The "Vermont Plays" are entitled The Aliens, The Circle Mirror Transformation, Nocturama, and Body Awareness. I saw the critically acclaimed production of The Aliens at the Weston Playhouse in 2011, and was powerfully affected by the dialogue among the three characters that takes place in a minimal set behind a coffee shop. While playwrights intend for their work to be performed on the stage, one can also find deep meaning and emotion in reading these plays. You can step back, re-read dialogue, concentrate on the stage direction. In reading the entire group of the Vermont Plays, you can see the connections and themes that run through the entire oeuvre.
In reading the plays, one notices the amount of white space that fills most of the pages. The dialogue is spare. Baker specifies in the stage directions for The Aliens that the pauses should be at least 3 seconds and the silences should last at least 5 to 10 seconds. To be certain that the pauses and silences are long enough, she specifies that each of the two acts should run 50-55 minutes. No rushing through the lines here! There's nothing like a stage filled with silence to make an audience uncomfortable and pay attention, and discomfort and attention is what Baker is brilliant at stimulating and sustaining, focusing our attention on the minutiae of how we feel, think, speak, and act.
Baker gives her characters (with one exception) first names only and no details about appearance except for their age. They engage in minimal dialogue, usually limited to single words or brief sentences. The rapid back-and-forth exchange of phrases and words, the overlapping, interrupting lines, the use of colloquial speech especially profanity, and those pauses and silences gives the reader/audience the feeling of watching real-life action in real-time.
These techniques put the spotlight directly on the characters and their words as Baker paints a picture of unrelieved bleakness. In Aliens, Jasper, a self-labelled "trailer trash" product, has his promising novel abruptly ended by his opioid-related death, leaving KJ, his friend and bandmate in the group called The Aliens, bereft and adrift. In Circle Mirror Transformation we meet five characters participating in an adult drama course. Schultz, a recently divorced carpenter, briefly finds love with Theresa, who has fled New York because of a dominating boyfriend. She, in turn, leaves Schultz. Even Marty, the artsy instructor, leaves her husband, James, during the six-week course because of domestic violence despite their shared cultural and artistic interests. In Nocturama, another jilted lover, Skaggs Bernstein, is depressed, suicidal, and abusive towards his mother, her partner, and the African-American tour guide at White Pines. In Body Awareness, a lesbian psychology professor at Shirley State University has her Body Awareness Week ruined by a misogynistic and domineering male photographer who joins their household already shaken by the actions and threats of her partner's son who has Asperger's. Enough?
The unremitting and complex unhappiness in the lives of this cross-section of Shirley's inhabitants could lead the reader/audience to throw up their hands in despair and close the book or leave the theater at intermission (there's one in The Aliens which is "necessary for about ten different reasons"), but Baker's skill in character development and dialogue keeps one's attention and generates empathy instead of despair. She presents characters in crisis and in struggle. As Skaggs says at one point, "I think everyone is pathetic," and in Baker's Shirley that appears to be the case.
The universality of this pathos is Baker's theme, and it is with this universality that she engages the reader/audience in empathy and hope. Baker's message is one of a world of sadness, loss, infidelity, violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and bleakness, but a world which can be redeemed through love — parental love, romantic love, friendship love, and perhaps even the love of art. She makes it clear, however, that this redemption is not inevitable and won't come easily. The default position is disaster and loss, but the actions of responsible, loving, creative, and committed individuals are not for naught. The world can be made better and survived, even in Shirley. Her work deserves to be widely performed and witnessed, but until it appears in your neighborhood, you can read these plays and wonder at her talent.