“If there is no combat in love, then it has ceased.” ~ Søren Kierkegaard
A few weeks ago I arrived fashionably late to the folk-rock musical Son of a Gun at The Beckett at Theatre Row. I’ve learned by now, though, that tardiness is relative. Depending on how you see it, I was just in time. You see, as I transitioned from the foyer to my seat in the seemingly eternal abyss of optical darkness, I was greeted with a better greeting than the opening act. I was greeted by Cowboy Jesus (played by Ryan Link). And the rest of the musical was, as they say, history.
Cowboy Jesus stole my heart.
Before I reached my seat three feet away, Cowboy Jesus was my savior. I was filled with the Holy Ghost before I could sit down. In a matter of seconds I was entranced, laughing, involved, and absolutely oblivious to anything in my periphery. Door whispering, feet dragging, lips parting, smile budding, the chortle was birthed.
And, for most, that’s all she wrote. “What did you enjoy most?” I asked several. “Cowboy Jesus.” “Cowboy Jesus.” “Cowboy Jesus.” Cowboy Jesus was a big hit. I mean the guy plays drums. (Come to think of it, I read that somewhere in one of the so-called “Lost Gospels.”) But there’s more to enjoy about the musical than Cowboy Jesus, as much as it pains me to say so. Lord, have mercy.
Son of a Gun tells the tragic story of the Khrusty Appalachian band and tumultuous experiences of the eldest son Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty (Van Hughes). Lead by vocal foreman Winston Khrusty (Jimmie James), this family band is comprised of three rather silly, and at times naïve, folky brothers and their assertive, but wise mother, Elmadora Khrusty. We watch Danderhauler as he considers leaving the band, eventually lead it, fall in love and marry the tour’s opening act, Lucy Sunshine (Rebecca Hart), wrestle with his father’s choice to die from tongue cancer and cope with his lover’s miscarriage. It is a story of pain and love.
Its catchy score and excellent musical performances are no distraction.
Stylistically Son of a Gun blends the literal and figurative well. It performs the actual in its thick complexity and irony. Literally there is a son (an aspiring, musically promising, but existentially conflicted, Danderhauler Agamenon Khrusty) with a gun and he is a son of a gun (an ambitious, emotionally absent, alcoholic father in Winston). Figuratively though, as we see in the end, a son is birthed through this gun. A duel brings peace. A wound brings healing. Death brings life, and the story of Danderhauler resonates on more than one level. It can captivate beyond simply exact circumstances. This is art in its most flattering stroke. No matter what genre of art one engages in, one cannot go wrong in capturing the “actual” in all its complex turmoil and angst, even if this done with a little dose of dark humor and irony. Son of a Gun does just this.
There was no dearth of valuable themes in this script. And evocation was not absent. It was meaningful. It was provocative. It was unsettling. It did violence to our comfort. And rightly so. In some sense, many of us were onstage. Those experiences were ours. Those questions came from our mouths. Those actions were ones we regretted. Perhaps still do. Son of a Gun is so human that it seems to bring us to the mirror of existence and let us see for ourselves how much our outline resembles that of others. In a rather twisted and concocted instance, its story is telling many of our stories.
That’s to be expected.
We are too eager to not be affected by those we long for. Our parents, siblings, spouses and professions hurt us (especially if our profession is playing in a band composed of our parents and siblings and our wife is the opening act). In some manner, and for some reason, our loved ones and things bring us pain. In some cases, they do us evil. That is certain. But, as Son of a Gun suggests, what isn’t certain is our response.
A musical brings us to the precipice of existential options and encourages us to choose wisely. It invites us to consider just how satisfying it really is to respond from pain, anger, and resentment. And in a dark, almost horrifying pivotal moment when Danderhauler confronts his dead father, it invites us to consider just how meaningful it would be to perpetuate the behavior of our offender, especially if that offender is someone so close to us.
In this pivotal moment Danderhauler has a choice: he can either imitate his father or change himself. He can either cower from his past or confront it. He can either despise his family or honor them. He can either let his trauma and pain destroy his marriage or make it the foundation upon which it stands. He can either offend others through his pain or heal them through a reckoning of his situation.
As we watch Danderhauler make poor and sensible choices throughout, and recollect the choices of his father, it draws our attention to the formidable nature and danger of ambition. Ambition can take many forms as he and his father can testify to: suppressing the past, leading a family appalachian band, wanting to be a good father. As their choices make clear, some days ambition looks more like denial or narcissism. As we see Danderhauler wrestle with his own ambition in relation to his father’s, we are invited to consider our own. And, by seeing the repercussions of his unfold on stage, we are tempted to discern right ones from wrong ones.
The talented guinea pig is there for our prudential benefit.
The right choice and the right kind of ambition require courage, hope and persistence. People like Danderhauler need help from mothers, brothers, and spouses. People like Danderhauler need to be reminded of the possible. People like that need time to heal. People, that is, like us. Like Danderhauler, we end up wounding ourselves by not dealing with our wounds. The shot that wounded him was a shot felt by the rest of us in that theater. It was a shot that many of us have ourselves been wounded by. And like Danderhauler we must attend to this wound.
The question is, do we accept the blood loss and let the lead set in or do we pull out the bullet and medicate and wrap the wound? Do we try to change what happened or do we try to create what can be? Do we fight for love or do we let it pass us by?