At our first full rehearsal for the University of Hawaiʻi's 2005 production of Vinegar Tom, my friend and director Lurana O'Malley urged us to allow our characters to be as strange and specific as we ourselves are in life. Each of us, especially when we are alone or with only those we are close to, has odd habits, quirky behaviors, wrinkles in our personalities that rarely find their way on stage. Actors too often create characters who are so efficiently in service to intention and action, to objective and tactic, that the messiness, the strangeness, the specificity and eccentricity of the human being are lost.
One of the things I admired most about Lisa Kron's In the Wake, which I saw toward the end of its run at the Public Theater a couple of months ago, was that Kron wrote characters that couldn't possibly be played without quirks. The actors didn't have the option to make too much sense, or to be so committed to moving their objectives (and the plot) forward that they reduced the lives of their characters to cogs in a well-made machine. (Of course casting first-rate actors like Marin Ireland didn't hurt the cause.)
The play isn't perfect, but Kron does a remarkable job channeling her formal restlesness, in the context of this relatively conventional play, into the shape of her characters. The result, perhaps surprisingly from this playwright, is a text inhabited by people I'd never met but recognized almost immediately. They could very well have been my neighbors in the early post-9/11 years during which the play is set. The oddness of the characters didn't distract from the issues raised by the play, it made them easier to engage with. In the Wake isn't quirky for quirky's sake; it's startlingly realistic and believable (with the exception of some ill-considered direct-address monologues).
I often declare my suspicion of, and disdain for, words like "universal," carping that universalism is more often an act of erasure than of illumination. Another reason the quest for something "universally" identifiable, of course, is that identifiication itself is personal. If there is a "universal" experience, it is the recognition that we can never quite understand each other, and that we can never quite be understood. Empathy is not about complete understanding; it is about the fact that it is okay not to understand completely, and the fact that each of us is as mysterious to our respective "other" as the other is to us.