The world was green once, full of new possibilities and unfound discoveries. They might include graceful images of fields and towns, vividly described food, and the beauty of a simple yet evocative piano accompaniment, all of which define the Michael Chekhov Theater Company's production of When the World Was Green. The piece was written by Sam Shepard and longtime collaborator Joseph Chaikin for the Olympic Arts Festival during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It tells the story of an aging chef who kills one of his patrons, whom he believes to be a cousin who must die because of a decades-old familial blood feud. The entire play takes place in the cell of the Old Man (Peter J. Coriaty). There, awaiting his punishment, he is interviewed by a young woman (Alia Tarraf) who may or may not be the daughter of the man he killed.
On a basic level, the play is a glorious homage to food. Indeed, for the Old Man, the world was green during his idyllic past as a cook. His memories are draped in a sweet kind of nostalgic melancholy. The Old Man's succulent descriptions of various foods and their preparations, and the scenes where he teaches the Interviewer how to cook a dish, make the piece also about the creative process itself. Although his life was governed by the grim fact that he had to murder his cousin, he was still able to find small moments of great beauty in the meals he created. Ultimately, though, the Interviewer wants his story, and this is the gift he gives to her.
The piano music, always present, was scored for the original production and playfully interacts with the characters. The pianist, Larry Chertoff, is just offstage but in view of the audience. The riffs and ditties that he plays not only focus distinct lines of dialogue—conveying, for instance, the importance of a scene ending—but are a constant reminder that the Old Man's mission in life was to kill his cousin, who was a pianist. It is as if the cousin is never gone, despite the Old Man's insistence that "it's all over now."
The Old Man, played by Peter J. Coriaty, deftly displays a kind of distant sadness as he ruminates about his life, devoted, as it was, to food and death. He also shows a rabid anger at the Interviewer over her insistence that he retell his story. Tarraf is appropriately pushy in the role and nicely builds up to revelations about her own past, although in her solo scenes, directed toward the audience, she was a bit overly sentimental.
The set is minimal: a metal cot, a small table, and a simple light representing a window all underscore the straightforward unpretentiousness with which Carol Kastendieck has directed this under-recognized Shepard classic.
"The joy in theater comes from discovery and the capacity to discover," Joseph Chaikin writes in The Presence of the Actor, his seminal book on acting. The joy in this production of When the World Was Green is great because there is so much to discover.