- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

SCREENING ROOM

By Alan Lightman

Pantheon Books, $25.95, 247 pages

BEAUTIFUL CHAOS

By Carey Perloff

City Lights Foundation, $17.95, 264 pages

Summoned back to Memphis, the city of his birth, for the funeral of an uncle, Alan Lightman takes his readers on a delightful, incisive journey into the idiosyncrasies of the present and the remembrances of the past during a hot summer. “In physics, heat is motion and speed at the molecular level, but in humanity, and especially southern humanity, heat is slowness, deliberation, grace, a rounded kind of courtesy.”

Mr. Lightman, the oldest of four brothers born in a middle-class Jewish family, left Memphis as a young man for the North. He became an outstanding theoretical physicist and professor at Harvard and MIT. Twenty years later, as he explains, “I turned to my other passion, creative writing, a veering course that made everyone in the family anxious over my well-being and livelihood. Finally, I had traded a certainty for uncertainty, questions with answers for questions without answers.”

He is the grandson of M.A. Lightman, the family patriarch who “built an empire of sixty-three movie theaters in seven southern states, and his theaters dominated in each of the towns where they operated. Whenever a competing movie house threatened one of M.A.’s, he bought it.”

The book is filled with eccentric characters, such as his mother’s brother, Philip, who came to Alan’s parents’ wedding where he “coasted from one guest to the next asking for money. On top of that, he was wearing a suit two sizes too small. Everyone was flabbergasted.”

Mr. Lightman imbues his memoir with a lovely sense of time and place. He describes an uncle’s voice telling stories of M.A. “In the heat, his voice becomes a flow of warm water, then the buzz of a bee, then the soft rising and falling of my breath as I breathe in and out and my head leans against my chair. A face, a hand, a reddish gold color.”

He muses on the relationship between his parents, describes humorously his youthful jobs in his grandfather’s movie theaters, and ponders how he never understood his father until this visit. There are highly amusing anecdotes, for example, when, as a 13-year-old, he built a working rocket with a lizard as the passenger.

Mr. Lightman ends his graceful memoir with this thought: “What is real? If the past is all that is real, because it is all that is reputed to have actually happened, then it cannot be real because it shifts and contorts in our minds. If the present is all that is real, then it too is not real, for it slips to the past as quickly as a breath.”

In “Beautiful Chaos,” Carey Perloff tells the story of how she rebuilt San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (ACT) as its artistic director. Arriving in 1992, she found a company “so complicated, so troubled, and so dysfunctional” and the 1910 beaux-arts Geary Theater in ruins from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Undaunted, Miss Perloff, who loves ruins as well as theater, set about reviving the ACT.

Contrary to the Southern tone of “Screening Room,” Miss Perloff, who is a friend, writes with vivacity, energy and enthusiasm. Her memoir is an engrossing account of the struggle to re-create an important artistic center with an innovative repertoire, a committed actors training program, a core of talented actors and a responsive public. She tells of her mishaps, faux pas and victories with candor and humor.

Carey Perloff was born n Washington, D.C. in 1959 to an intellectual Jewish family, the younger daughter of a cardiologist and a literary critic who fled Vienna as a child. Her “love affair with the theater started in the autumn of 1976 during a first-year Greek class at Stanford,” in which she had enrolled to further her archaeological ambitions.

She writes with tenderness of her grandparents, and with admiration for her parents. The most interesting parts of the book are her personal conflicts and reflections, her professional friendships, her ambitions and how she managed to juggle a happy marriage, pregnancy and motherhood with a full-time job that involved not only choosing and casting plays, attending rehearsals and performances, teaching classes, but raising money to rebuild a ruined house and financing a non-profit theater. Now that her children are adults, she has added playwriting and the purchase of a second, smaller theater, the Strand.

Miss Perloff believes that “ideas can be sexy and that great plays should make us think as well as feel, while waking us up to the cliches of our own quotidian language.” She loves “verbal dexterity.” Her relationships with some of the best American and British actors and playwrights makes for fascinating reading.

For anyone interested in the complexities of the art of theater, this lively, entertaining and informative book is a must.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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