There are great people and there are terrible people. Often, however, there are great people who are also terrible, and the task of sorting people into neat slots is only made possible with the crutch of some serious doublethink. Just how this occurs and whether it is a valid way of dealing with these complexities are themes central to “August Guilt,” a new play by Residential College freshman Jacob Levi Stroud that is being premiered by the RC Players under the direction of School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Amanda Cohen.
Tonight, tomorrow and Sunday at 7 p.m.
The play follows the events and internal struggle of a Southern family, the Guilts, as they deal with the death of the head of their patriarchy, August Guilt, whose social respect as a minister and politician is at odds with the familial strife that begins to boil up in his wake.
“The main point of ‘August Guilt’ is actually really in the title,” Stroud said. “The juxtaposition of ‘August’ and ‘guilt’ and the differences between being a good person and being a good character. What I mean is that there is a private side and a side you project, which are often very different.”
Stroud explained that the title word “August” refers to the word’s meaning of something closer to venerable or noble.
“What this play is doing is making the audience think about the best person they know — a brother, mother, whatever — and then think of the worst person they know,” Stroud said. “But then the plays asks you to imagine (if) those two personas were the same person. It’s difficult.”
The conflicts split open when the son refuses to read his father’s eulogy, an act that defies the veneer of the Guilts and threatens to tarnish the public image of his father. As the layers quietly unravel among the family, more and more is laid bare as the family members each wrestle with the aftermath of tragedy.
“The idea of remnants is very vital to the play,” Stroud said. “The August Guilt on stage is not the deceased man, but the living imprint left by the abuse suffered by each member of the family. Things linger with abuse and they are distorted and carried by those abused.”
To tell the story, Stroud uses a less conventional format, that blends elements of the real and the surreal. Its format uses a minimalistic set and heavy dialogue, but the directing choices of Amanda Cohen are tight, cohesive and enriching to the play experience, Stroud explained.
“Some of my biggest inspirations would be Tony Kushner and Allen Ball, because they both mesh realism with surrealism to create something more true than a realist set,” Stoud said. “It lets you get behind the characters more and really tease out the essence of them; you can come to terms and understand them better.”
As the audience comes to understand the characters, so too the characters begin to understand each other in relation to August Guilt. It is about admitting abuse and moving beyond it, Stroud explained, and only once they move beyond Guilt — both as a character and a representation for their shame — do they heal.
“It’s a powerful play of retribution and reconciliation, of abuse’s damage and the hope of recovery,” Stroud said. “And at its core, it is an experience and experiment that brings the audience together with the actors to question some of the most important facets of public and private relationships.”