Friday, November 11, 2011

Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?

"Aw, dig it, Pete! Does a tiger wear a necktie?""No, but it isn’t  in the nature of a…"

With this question, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, Don Petersen prompts the exploration that guides his 1962 play about a group of young addicts placed in a rehabilitation center. With addiction standing in for the scope of circumstances, behaviors, and modes of thinking in which one can become stuck, Petersen uses his characters to reflect on the conflict in one’s nature between immutability and the possibility of change - predestination against agency.

Petersen’s drama plays out primarily in the relationship of the addict Bickham and his teacher, Winters. Winters’s wariness toward his students is won out by a sympathy for their tough lives that have led them along the path to addiction. Contrasted with the institution’s other authority figures, he is the only one willing to place some degree of hope in his charges. Bickham, a role that won Al Pacino a Tony award, meanwhile is a young man beginning to see his future ever darkening, seeking desperately to believe himself in the hope Winters extends.

The dynamic is refracted through two of the other residents, Conrad and Linda. Conrad, in love with Linda, knows how little chance change really has, but refuses to doubt that he just might make it. Linda, burned by life and cynically resisting the thought that she has agency, much less could be loved, is slowly changed by the vision offered by Conrad’s optimism.

The play suffers from an overabundance of un-nuanced 1960s sociological psychoanalysis - absent fathers equal addiction like an equation - but Petersen’s vivid realization of his characters is compelling enough to overcome this fault.

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