Gloria, written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, is a drama concerning the death of compassion in American culture, and how we talk each other out of caring. It is actually quite subtle, considering the shocking act of violence that ends the first act. Afterwards, my friend suggested that there will always be schmucks, which is certainly true. But I believe that Jacobs-Jenkins has hit upon a current, pervasive attitude (perhaps the seeds were planted during the “Me-Decade”) that it’s easier to dismiss the deeply troubled than reach out to them. In the second act Kendra remarks that all the attention being heaped on Gloria is perversely rewarding her for terrible behavior. This may be so, but just as in the case of Columbine and the catastrophes that followed, red flags were ignored before the tipping point. Why not take refuge in cliques and label those in pain as “freaks”?
Set in the editorial office of an erudite, very literate magazine, Gloria focuses on the behavior of certain key characters: Ani, Miles, Dean, Lorin, Kendra and Gloria. Miles is the pleasant intern assigned to Dean, who works with Ani and Kendra. Lorin is a fact checker and Gloria an editor. Ani is very sweet and friendly, but most of the action focuses of the feud between Dean and Kendra. Dean tries to be savvy in playing the game of office politics, but Kendra has mastered it. Dean gets drunk and lost in life’s disappointments, and Kendra takes gleeful pleasure in heaping abuse and misery on him. The problem isn’t so much the back and forth between Dean and Kendra, but Kendra’s flouncy, arrogant attitude. Rather than owning her bad behavior, she completely justifies it, essentially declaring that “losers” bring adversity on themselves. We can imagine her spitting on Job. It’s not that Dean is without flaw, but when he retaliates and gets the better of her, Kendra isn’t just miffed. She’s furious. And there are so many Kendras in the world.
What makes Gloria a profoundly poignant and relevant play is not the overwhelming violence, but how Jacobs-Jenkins uses it. How those involved react long after the tragic incident has occurred. How much have they changed, after a presumably life-altering event? When Dean and Kendra meet again (at a Starbucks) you’d think they could reconcile. At the outset, that appears to be what’s happening. When Dean crosses paths with another editor from the office (a pregnant woman) you would certainly guess that she’d respond graciously to his staggering sense of despair. She does however, ask her friend if maybe she’d been harsh, after Dean is thrown out.
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is rather sly and Dallas Theater Center’s production of Gloria laden with thematic rhyming. Several characters swoon over her intensely emotional songs when a young, intoxicating siren dies, but have no use for the messy side of their own humanity. What we might normally ascribe to double or triple-casting, gradually reveals the suggestion that our fate is wished upon us, rather than due to lack of character. Sound Designer John Flores and Scenic Designer Dahlia Al-Habieli have erected pristine, secular temples of civilization, complete with disembodied choral fanfare, and persistent, salient red accents. In my numerous years of theatre-going I have to say, Gloria is one of the most powerful plays I have ever seen. We’re already 17 years into the 21st Century, but still believe the affectation of spiritual enlightenment is good enough.
The Dallas Theater Center Presents Gloria, playing December 7th-January 22nd, 2017. Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre (Studio Theatre) AT&T Performing Arts Center. 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. www.DallasTheaterCenter.org