Alan Berks (Playwright)

Alan Berks
Alan Berks


1999, “Morning Rituals,” play by Alan Berks. Director April Smith.  Cast: Christian Miller, Megan Towle, Stewn Galatro

By Kyle Lawson
The Arizona Republic
The young believe that they will live forever. Given the movies they see, the television they watch, you’d think they’d know better, but the knowledge of their mortality always seems to come as a surprise. Juliet and her kid brother, Jeremy, the protagonists of Alan Berks’ “Mourning Rituals,” can’t believe what’s happening to them. Their father dies in an accident. He is hit by a wind-tossed sign as Jeremy watches, too far away to do anything. Afterward, Juliet conscientiously cares for their cancer-stricken mother, but she dies, too. These seemingly random deaths (“Why them? Why then?”) offend the siblings and frighten them. What is the point of going on when it could all end with a surge of air or with the body consuming itself while the mind watches, helpless to stop the feast? Who can assure them that they, or anyone they love, will last the day? The title suggests that Berks’ drama is about death, but “Mourning Rituals,” whose world premiere is being staged by Blackball Ensemble at Planet Earth Theatre, is more concerned with finding reason to live after the holocaust. Juliet and Jeremy set out on a cross-country odyssey to make sense of chaos. They “investigate accidents,” recording on tape and video survivors’ accounts of what happened. In the privacy of their motel rooms, they replay these again and again, editing them, combining them in different forms. Could these “accidents” have been prevented? If not, was there some plan? Did God, fate or whomever, whatever it is that controls our destinies know what the hell it was doing? Their quest reaches a climax in a seedy Phoenix motel, where the air-conditioning doesn’t work and their nerves wear thin. Their latest interview subject is Guy, who, like Jeremy, has witnessed a tragedy he was unable — or unwilling — to prevent. Guy, too, is investigating the way of things, finding most of his answers in the whiskey bottles he strews in his wake. He is bent on killing himself, though he has hopes of meeting someone who will do him the favor. Berks plays out the confrontation in the manner of the siblings’ approach to their research. The audience is presented replays and edits that wreak havoc with time and place. Dialogue and action sequences that seem fraught with meaning in one scene take on a new dimension when seen and heard in the context of another. It is an ambitious approach that doesn’t always work. In spite of the complexity of the play’s structure, we can see the end coming. In giving us the sociopath we know from countless TV shows and movies, Berks misses the opportunity to confound us with hope. Like his characters, he succumbs to the fashionable pessimism of youth. But then, it is a young man’s play, with many of the faults common to early efforts. Berks, who is in his final year in Arizona State University’s creative writing program, is still gauging the effects of language. His characters’ dialogue can be gripping; it also can be self-consciously arty or unnecessarily obscure. Like many playwrights before him, he has discovered the joys of repetition, which, in moderation, is a good thing and, in this case, even serves as a useful plot device. Unfortunately, he is immoderate in its use. He hasn’t reached the stage where he’s comfortable with letting the audience do some of the work. That aside, it’s refreshing to find a young playwright who has something to say other than four letter words and who doesn’t stoop to baring his characters’ flesh while revealing their souls. You don’t have to be in your 20s or 30s to rail along with Juliet, Jeremy and Guy at the unfairness of life. Anyone who has lost someone will find himself caught up in Berks’ debate. Director April Smith constantly rachets up the tension. If the ending is anti-climactic, it isn’t her fault. Christian Miller creates an appealing Guy, cutting into the audience’s emotions as deeply as he does his own, while Megan Towle’s Juliet has one of those moments actresses live for when she reveals her feelings about her mother’s death. Stewn Galatro’s Jeremy disappoints, but perhaps that is unfair criticism. Berks saddles him with the role of the stereotypical, disturbed youth, and there’s only so far an actor can take that. Still, whenever Galatro’s emoting, one wonders whether the sign outside doesn’t read “Bates’ motel.”