Novelist and reporter Cohen (Heat Lightning, 1997, etc.) examines the Arlington Friends of the Drama (AFD) production of M. Butterfly for what it reveals about the changing shape of community theater—and in the nature of community itself.
Founded in 1923 as a genteel recreation for society ladies in suburban Boston, AFD in the late 1990s found itself struggling to attract younger members, who had less free time than their predecessors and looser links to Arlington (where its recently renovated theater stands). M. Butterfly, which features nudity and a same-sex love affair, was a controversial choice for the over-50 crowd that constitutes the majority of AFD’s members, but director Ceila Couture (AFD president and a manager at Hewlitt-Packard) believed it was an artistically necessary step. She recruited most of the AFD stalwarts for her design team and cast a canny mix of old-timers (including board member and perennial leading man Jimmy Grana as French diplomat Gallimard) and newcomers (most notably, 22-year-old Patrick Wang as the Chinese opera star who impersonates a woman and becomes Gallimard’s “mistress”). Cohen follows the production from auditions through opening night to its triumph at a regional competition, detailing the hard work of actors, directors, designers, and backstage personnel, all of whom are profiled with empathy and acuity in lucid, deceptively simple prose. Eschewing the now-tired traditions of New Journalism, she keeps herself out of this third-person narrative, although her intelligence and sensitivity as an observer are always evident. A few first-person chapters, somewhat bumpily integrated, movingly convey Cohen’s love for amateur theater as the purest expression of the universal human desire to tell stories and make art—which she finds alive and well at AFD.
Not quite as imaginative and unusual as the marvelous Glass, Paper, Beans (1997), but nonetheless another fine work of cultural reflection by a gifted young writer.