By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published February 9, 2017
ATLANTA—In 1996 Tom Key starred in “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Seminar” in his first season at Theatrical Outfit, adapting for the stage a best-selling novel by Walker Percy who had influenced Key’s own conversion to Catholicism.
Two decades later in the Outfit’s 40th anniversary season of “hope” and record growth, Key resurrects the provocative journey through the human psyche and Milky Way galaxy, this time infused with improvisational juices in partnership with Dad’s Garage Theatre Company. The comedy directed by Kevin Gillese runs Feb. 9 to 26 at the Outfit’s downtown Atlanta home at Balzer Theater at Herren’s.
Theatrical Outfit calls the play a wry meditation that engages the mind, soul and funny bone. A world so changed in the last 20 years makes it seem even more relevant.
“It’s absolutely basically the same story, it captures the most important elements of the book, of my dramatic vision, and feels so immediate and fresh and funny,” said Key.
A fellow Catholic convert and Alabama native who won the National Book Award, Percy “was trying to dramatize or make real what it’s like to be on a search for meaning, for God, for love, in all of his literature, particularly ‘The Moviegoer’ and ‘Second Coming’ and ‘The Last Gentlemen’ and in a very different way the parody ‘Lost in the Cosmos,’” Key said.
“I think he just gets at what is real and what is ultimate reality brilliantly, in a way that Flannery O’Connor did, that Malcolm Muggeridge did, that Thomas Merton did, that Dorothy Day did. And these writers had an enormous influence on (Key’s wife) Beverly and I becoming Catholic in 1998,” he continued.
Key wrote Percy in March 1990 to request the rights to adapt “Lost in the Cosmos.” When the author died that May, he thought the opportunity was lost. Instead, he learned that before his death Percy had granted Key the first adaptation of any of his novels for the stage, including this one.
“It was an amazing invitation and responsibility so when I became artistic director of Theatrical Outfit I programmed that in my first season. That was the world premiere and it was a big hit,” Key said.
Rehearing Percy’s work in 2017
Years later he began to consider how younger generations would respond to “Cosmos” in the tumultuous times after 9/11, the Great Recession, ISIS, political upheaval and the daily threat of terrorism. The play’s main character Harold, a successful but distressed truth-seeking dentist, volunteers at a self-help seminar to undergo a series of increasingly mysterious thought experiments with humanity’s future at stake.
“I became interested in what the reaction to this play would be now when trying to drum up credibility for some kind of apocalypse is not too hard anymore,” Key mused.
Then Key took an improvisational comedy class at Dad’s Garage and showed the “Cosmos” script to Gillese and younger staffers at the Outfit, who loved it. About the same time he was invited to make a presentation at the Loyola University Walker Percy Center. Indeed, the time seemed ripe to break out the script and make some 21st century updates (the Phil Donahue character becomes Dr. Phil). And it’s perhaps even more relevant in this age of obsession with reality TV and politics, how-to guides and social media connectivity as thrice-divorced Harold suffers from a sense of vacuity and disconnection. But his childlike vulnerability and openness to discovery attracted actor Dan Triandiflou, 44, to play him.
“He’s been through a lot and he’s desperate to find answers or a connection to other people that is missing in his life, and I thought that’s very appealing, especially in this age where we don’t seem very connected to one another any more,” said Triandiflou, also filming for the movie “I, Tanya” in Macon.
“He’s been searching for answers very much in the Walker Percy school of thought—if you’re not searching for something then you’re lost. You have to be willing to search for something bigger than yourself that draws you closer to everyone else,” the actor said.
And if Harold succeeds so can the audience.
“You have to confront the darkness of the world in order to kind of see the light. I think it’s uplifting because in the end despite all the obstacles and disappointments there’s a new opportunity for growth and enlightenment. And again it’s not that it’s easily solved, but his perspective and attitude, his disposition, is pointing upward,” said Triandiflou, who attends St. Thomas More Church in Decatur.
“We have to ask for help”
Gillese, 36, described it as “gentle parody” with “fun to be had” in mining the jokes and zany tropes of the soul-searching seminar.
“This play asks a lot of important questions and we need to keep it engaging and fun so that people aren’t too stressed out,” said Gillese, a Canadian native and artistic director at Dad’s Garage Theatre. “It’s very kind of philosophical, intellectual, dense. It’s complex. And on the other hand, I found it to be playful and full of heart.”
And he’s delighted to join forces with Key.
“The opportunity to collaborate with him has been such a thrill. So for me that’s what’s been really special because I see him as a kindred spirit but also as a role model,” he said. “Ultimately the question the play is asking is, are we able to pull ourselves up out of the muck, out of the petty bickering, violence, and all the hurt and anger and all the things that make humans struggle. … And what are the things that are going to elevate us, and the steps we need to take to elevate ourselves? And one of the core ideas the play suggests is it is possible, but that we have to acknowledge that we are lost and we have to ask for help.”
The show celebrates Theatrical Outfit’s theme of hope this season.
“We envision the world as what we aspire to, a world that is compassionate and joyful and just, and what we do to make it more that way is we tell the kinds of stories that start the kind of conversations that transform us,” said Key.
Now 66, Key recalled with a chuckle his original plan to stay at the Outfit for three years to realize his vision. But after two decades he joyfully labors to secure its future in completing a strategic growth plan, having paid off the mortgage and hired a managing director, Lee Foster, in 2014.
He also created their LEED-certified theater in the historic space of the first restaurant to desegregate voluntarily in Atlanta.
“Last year, the 2015-16 season was our most successful in terms of ticket sales in our 40-year history, and this year we already have sold more than we did last year. … There were certain tactics we did—raising more money to invest in marketing so that we could do the kinds of plays to implement our mission,” Key happily reported. “There’s a sense of wow, if we did this, we might could do that. So we raised the bar about every three, four or five years. There’s that kind of either challenge or opportunity, and we set off on a course and see if we can take it to the next level.”
Through the drama, Key continues to seek truth through art. He also continues performing his acclaimed “C.S. Lewis on Stage” one-man show he premiered at the age of 26, performing at four colleges this spring.
“I do believe the theater has been given as a gift to us to enable us to evoke the presence of God, and so I am blessed. I don’t think it’s possible to separate them. I believe that art is always entertaining, but I don’t think that entertainment is necessarily art. (Entertainment) can sort of work like mood-altering drugs, and once the drug wears off, the effect wears off. But I think with art the effect is permanent,” he said.
“We’re worshipping at Our Lady of Lourdes and to be there celebrating Mass on MLK weekend and singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ together and then to be in rehearsal for ‘Lost in the Cosmos’ they both become a sacred space to me in which I can be grateful to God for the gift of life.”
For ticket information visit www.theatricaloutfit.org.