Olympic gymnast Chellsie Memmel is “on stage in a completely new way” (as she puts it) later this month in the nation’s capital. She’s starring in The Loser Letters, a creative response to “the new atheism” and to a radical secularism that would make religion seem irrational and unworthy of respect, never mind protection.
The play is adapted and directed by Jeffrey Fiske, a playwright who describes the show as a story about a young woman wrestling with Faith, her inner demon. “In this case, the inner demon is played by a world champion and Olympic-medal gymnast!” he exclaims.
Memmel’s character is a non-speaking role, relying entirely on the prompts of a young woman named A. F. Christian and on choreography — the perfect role for a gymnast.
A. F. Christian is the creation of Mary Eberstadt, who, sometime around 2008, came to me with an idea for a series written from the vantage of a young woman struggling with atheism and its inadequacy to the human condition. We published it as a series in progress at National Review Online, and Ignatius Press later published it as a book.
This notion of the Shadow, that “demon” Fiske references, though, was never in the print versions — a fruit of the creative genius of Fiske. Eberstadt explains:
There are supernatural elements to A.F.’s tale that are left mostly implicit in the book until the end. What Jeff has done is bring them to life and make them explicit in the form of The Shadow. That addition is a great example of the difference between page and stage. It makes the production abound with kinetic energy — both A.F.’s and that of her shadowy doppelgänger. The dialectic of their movements is a show in itself.
Eberstadt describes her own creation, A. F. Christian, as “a modern Everygirl. All of us know someone like her! She’s bubbly, antic, scattered, plucky — and fought over in more ways than one.”
A.F. is very much one of the “nones” of her generation – a Millennial who steers clear of organized religion “and humanity generally these days.” And yet, “A.F. struggles with the re-paganization of the world,” Eberstadt says. “She’s a pilgrim who doesn’t even know she’s on a pilgrimage — because she’s been robbed by the secular culture of the very language of sin and redemption. Recovering that lost language is a big part of her journey.”
The premise of The Loser Letters story is that “we live in uniquely broken times,” Eberstadt says. Perhaps one has to look no further than the presidential election in the headlines today to drink in that sobering, saddening, maddening reality. Sounding a bit like Pope Francis, who frequently talks about the throwaway society in which even human beings are seen as disposable, Eberstadt adds: “In today’s secularized culture, a deformed, consumerist view of humanity rules. This causes heartbreak and injustice on a massive scale — especially by undermining romance and love, as the story of the protagonist goes to show.” She emphasizes that “A.F.’s problems and trials are an everybody thing.”
In the series of letters Eberstadt wrote from the heart of A.F. you hear a
struggle to intuit and understand what people in more sophisticated eras were taught early on: that transgression and penance and redemption aren’t chimeras from times past; they’re present-day existential realities. Lots of people in our time have learned the same truth the hard way, as she does. Her success in making sense of a broken past is what drives the action of the book, and the play.
Just the other day, the New York Times had the word “redemption” above the fold, in fact, looking for a bit of it in Donald Trump. It’s a bipartisan need — and our only shot at rebuilding a culture and politics that have forgotten certain essentials for human life and flourishing.
Fiske tells me that he is “always excited about creating live theater in a way that people can’t experience by staying home and watching a screen.” If you consider the extent to which screens rule our lives — really, when you can’t take an elevator or cross a street while looking — there is disorder afoot. And The Loser Letters takes to the stage — it debuts at the Catholic University of America before month’s end — at a time when we are in some dire threat of losing so much of our patrimony. It does so removed from politics, drawing instead on something deeper within us for reflection, not instant action or outrage or despair (as is all too common these days).
“Art is so important,” Memmel tells me. “It is a form of expression. It is also a way of sparking conversation. I hope people who see the play can take something away from it.”
May the spark keep us from losing our minds, our souls, our common identity as created beings with something more to live for than the material world and even presidential elections. Wouldn’t that just be about the greatest news ever if we lived as though we treasured such a faith-based reality? And protected those who did, even if we all didn’t quite see it completely?