Extreme Whether: Act I

Karen Malpede

Note on the text: In my play Extreme Whether (W-H-E-T-H-E-R) I am, again, using current research, not only about the science of global warming and climate change which, in and of itself, is enough to stand one’s hair on end, but about the ways in which that science has been censored and is being willfully misunderstood by the so-called climate change deniers, those with financial ties to the coal, oil, and natural gas industries. This well-funded campaign against scientific truth may well prove the most consequential blockade of human knowledge in human history.

The play is based on the life and work of American scientists, most particularly James Hansen, Michael Mann, and Jennifer Francis, plus the research of biologist Tyrone Hayes into the effects of the herbicide Atrizine; all four have been attacked and vilified for their ground-breaking research.

I came to view climate scientists as visionaries and altruists, flawed and flummoxed like all such people who are suddenly called by forces outside themselves to excel themselves, fighting not just their own reluctance to become publicly involved, and their own ill-adaption to public and activist lives, but, ultimately, fighting for the truth in the face of falsehood, not just because truth matters in some abstract or even in moral terms, but because the fate of the Earth itself, and all who live here, is ever more obviously at stake. I set the play as a family drama because we are an American family; what happens to the least of us, a frog in this case, is likely to happen to us all.

Extreme Whether, whose title is a pun that is also a dare, is built on pairs and opposites. The scientists, John and Rebecca, struggle with the implications of their knowledge—one supports and encourages the other when the other loses strength or hope.The publicist and lobbyist, Jeanne and Frank, plot and plan their misinformation campaign and the exploitation of the family land, and the wise old environmentalist, Uncle, and young, motherless, intersex, Annie, bond across generations and through a shared commitment to protect Earth and Earth’s creatures.

Throughout the play I am also juxtaposing the styles of what might be called psychological and magical realism.

In Extreme Whether I want people to re-experience those moments of absolute wonder, utter peace, and sudden insight we have all experienced alone in the natural world. Through the oracular voices of Uncle and Annie and the juxtaposition of lyric and realist stylistic modes, I try to create a poetry of the theater that frees the imagination and allows us quite literally to come to our senses.

 

TIME
Prologue and Act I are set in the summer of 2004; Act II takes place in the summer of 2012. The Epilogue is set in the near future. Yet, it’s as if no time has passed between the two acts.

SETTING
A tract of mainly wilderness land, somewhere on the northeast coast, that has been in the Bjornson family for several generations and which is now held in trust by the twin heirs, John and Jeanne. On this land there is a simple, rustic house, surrounded by meadows and trees and a hill from which you can see the sea. The house should have a transparent quality about it as it necessary to move fluidly from inside to outdoor scenes.

MUSIC
The musical score is full, gradually growing quieter and quieter, ending in near silence in the second act, except for the sound of the new wind turbine, but returning at the end of the Epilogue.

CHARACTERS
UNCLE, elderly steward of the land
ANNIE, in her early teens, JOHN’s daughter; she has Asperger’s syndrome, some say.
REBECCA, 30s, a climatologist specializing in Arctic ice, later, JOHN’s lover
JOHN, 60, an esteemed climate scientist, works for NASA
JEANNE, 60, his twin sister, a public-relations specialist
FRANK, 40s, JEANNE’s husband, a lobbyist

 

Acknowledgments
The science and the methods of its obstruction in this play are fact; the characters and the story are fictional. I would like to thank Dr. James Hansen and Dr. Jennifer Francis, on whose stories and research this play is based; the late Father Paul Mayer of the Interfaith Moral Climate Action Committee; the late Saul Reichbach; and David Swanson and the Humanist magazine for early support of this play.

 

ACT I

(The house: a rustic main room in good taste. Nature is all around, almost as if the wooden walls of the house are part of the natural world. On stage left, Annie begins to construct the frog pond. In the house, stage right, John sits in the large chair, reading Rebecca’s lecture. Rebecca is in the kitchen finishing the dishes.)

REBECCA
It was cornstarch.

JOHN
What if you had a weak heart?

REBECCA (enters, dish towel in hand)
I don’t have a weak heart.

JOHN (Rebecca exits)
White powder in a strange envelop.

REBECCA (enters without dishtowel)
Actually, it was an ordinary, yellow campus mail envelop, smudged with a thousand fingerprints.

JOHN
It was a threat.

REBECCA
This is what I get for lecturing about this summer’s ice-melt statistics—

JOHN
What did the police say?

REBECCA
“Is there anyone who might have it in for you, ma’am?”

JOHN
What did you tell them?

REBECCA
How do you tell them?

JOHN
Someone is attacking you for what you say in the classroom.

REBECCA
That’s what the police don’t quite get.

JOHN
Someone on our faculty. Make them write that down.

REBECCA
Someone, that’s the point. It is time you made your voice heard again. We need you, John.

JOHN
I promised Beth when we moved here I would devote myself to pure research, to Annie and her.

REBECCA
You mustn’t let one defeat . . .

JOHN
My finest moment, so I thought. The man who first uttered the words “global warming” to Congress. It was a blistery hot, humid day. C02 was at 350 parts per million in 1988. But today, in 2004, we are at 370 parts per million and by 2013, we should hit 400, if we do nothing. I wake up in the middle of the night, sweating.

REBECCA
They should have listened to you.

JOHN
Well, but, of course.

REBECCA
Your models were correct. All the significant projections had been made by you, John, then. I was so thrilled in sixth grade when I learned that climate models can actually see into the future. I decided to become a scientist on the spot.

JOHN
Sixth grade?

REBECCA
I’m sorry.

JOHN
I am sorry. There was just one glaring methodological mistake. Beth used to say, “John, you cannot expect everyone to think as you do.”

REBECCA
You could expect them to listen to facts.

JOHN
Quite. I was absolutely convinced everyone would understand my graphs. I picked up my pointer, and I started to speak. I saw their eyes glaze. There were yawns. I began piling on facts. They called me an “alarmist” for all that. You tell responsible men that greenhouse gas emissions will destroy the planet on which they live, but government policy can save us, just in time. They blow their noses. They pick at their ears. (He goes out into the garden.) I never spoke in public again. We have a sacred duty, Beth said, to make life even in the face of death. Annie was born. She was not “poor, dear Beth.” She had a fine, a noble spirit.

REBECCA
I wish I had known her.

JOHN
She would have approved your fire. (He comes back into the house.)

(Silence)

REBECCA
Have you read my cornstarch lecture, John?

JOHN
What we could not, then, predict was the effect increasing greenhouse gas emissions would have on the Arctic ice sheets that cool the seas.

REBECCA
That’s the thing: the Arctic sea ice is melting at a faster rate than any of us thought. Is this a singular, once in a life-time event, or a trend?

JOHN
Your lecture is quite clear on that.

REBECCA
You believe I’m correct?

JOHN
I’m afraid I believe that you are. Get your notes into publishable form. We need every shred of proof.

REBECCA
It’s good?

JOHN
Why else would you get white powder in your mailbox?

REBECCA
After all you’ve gone through, I felt rather honored. I did.

JOHN
You’ve proven yourself, Rebecca, with this. (He waves the lecture; she takes it from him, smoothes it out, laughing.)

REBECCA
Thank you.

JOHN
You are vital, Rebecca. Indomitable, I think. Fearless. And I need that, now.

REBECCA
Then you have what you need.

JOHN
Recently, I was approached to give a major speech at a Democratic fund-raising event.

REBECCA
But that’s wonderful.

JOHN
Naturally I had to refuse. I’m a government employee. I cannot afford to be associated with one political party.

(They go out to the porch.)

REBECCA
Surely, John, you can find a way.

JOHN
The National Council on Freedom is completely nonpartisan. I have been asked to give their annual lecture in Washington on October 4.

REBECCA
And you’ve said yes?

JOHN
No.

REBECCA
John!

JOHN
I asked for a few days to think it over.

REBECCA
You will say yes.

JOHN
I did not know if I dared, not until this very moment. Yes. (They laugh.)

JOHN and REBECCA (together)
Yes.

JOHN
They’ve promised me major press coverage. From that podium, I swear to you I shall call attention to greenhouse gas emissions and to the way the science is being ignored by the current administration.

(Uncle and Annie enter stage right with plants for the frog pond; they work on the pond. Annie has Sniffley in a bowl covered with cheesecloth.)

REBECCA
You could affect the outcome of the election.

JOHN
These people must be voted out and sane energy policy voted in.

REBECCA
I will work day and night with you.

(John impulsively kisses her.)

JOHN
Well, well, excuse me. I’m sorry. (He walks past her, back into the house.)

REBECCA
Don’t be.

JOHN
I was overcome. Congratulations on your research, again.

REBECCA
Do you normally kiss your colleagues? When they please you, I mean.

JOHN
I do not normally kiss anyone.

REBECCA
Perhaps you should try it more often. You are quite good.

(The screen door slams. Uncle listens from his wheelchair outside the house.)

ANNIE
It’s Sniffley, Papa.

JOHN
Shut the door, do not let it slam.

ANNIE
I know, but Papa, look, it is Sniffley. Uncle agrees. He’s become a six-legged frog. Poor Sniffley.

JOHN
What is he doing here, in the house?

ANNIE
I’ve brought him in from the wild. I’m afraid for the life of the pond. Sniffley is now a protected species. Sniffley has been adversely affected by environmental pollutants, Uncle, and I believe. Therefore, I am creating a frog pond in our backyard, where I can effectively monitor water purity.

JOHN
Are you telling me this frog came from the pond near the waterfall?

ANNIE
I am, Papa, it’s true.

JOHN
That the water up there is polluted?

ANNIE
I shall take samples and let you know. Sniffley remains in my care. Other frogs will find their way to keep him company once the pond is set up. Uncle is supervising my dig.

REBECCA
Can I see?

(Annie does not show the frog.)

ANNIE
Sniffley is a most unusual amphibian. He has six legs of uneven length. Sniffley has been subject to unnatural forces. But, then, I qualify: he is differently abled with six legs of different lengths. I have measured them and could be exact, but for current purpose suffice to say, Sniffley has trouble hopping and landing straight. This makes him an unusually contemplative amphibian, and it means he has over-developed his voice. Sniffley’s songs are the best. You will love waking up and going to sleep with Sniffley close to the house.

(Annie leaves; the screen door slams again.)

REBECCA (laughs)
Yes, you’ll be working, and I shall, too, through the nights. Sniffley will be singing to us. John, I am proud of you.

JOHN
Well, now, you must go write up your ice-melt lecture. And I must get to work.

(Jeanne walks through the room, fiddling with her cell phone.)

JEANNE
Excuse me. I’m trying to find a connection. “Hello, darling. Wait till I get . . .

(Jeanne is outside in the dark, under the night sky.)

JEANNE
Frank, my dear. Finally, I can hear your sweet voice. How are you, my love? No, I am to be ignored as usual. He’s in the house, storming about with that young woman of his. Yes, dear . . .

(Silence. Jeanne walks closer to Uncle, who is lost in a reverie. He grabs her arm, thinking it is Rebecca.)

UNCLE
What a magnificent woman!

JEANNE
Uncle!

UNCLE (disappointed)
Jeanne?

JEANNE
I can’t talk. I bumped into Uncle in the dark.

UNCLE
I must have been dreaming.

JEANNE
I can’t see a thing.

UNCLE
Dark! You call this dark! Look up! I wasn’t dreaming at all. I was running around in the sky, lost in a riot of stars. A racket of joy in my head. There’s Venus. There’s Mars. Everyone, outside!

(Frogs croak in the night; night music of the stars.)

ANNIE
It’s Sniffley, he’s found a friend. A new frog has arrived. “Oh, Sniffley, I do not mind if you have six legs, you are profound.” I do intuit what they say.

UNCLE
There’s a wilding inside. Rebecca! John!

JEANNE
Dear Frank, I have to hang up. It’s a madhouse.

UNCLE
A wilding inside that wills to connect to the wilding up there.

(The door slams.)

ANNIE
Papa! Rebecca!

JOHN
Whatever is it?

ANNIE
It is the heavens on fire.

(She pulls John outside. More frog croaks.)

ANNIE (whispering)
It is Sniffley, Papa, and his new friend.

JOHN
This is the cathedral dome.

UNCLE
I lack words.

JOHN
The orb of the world.

JEANNE
Why, John, you’re a poet.

JOHN
Jeanne, here?

JEANNE
Here. Take my hand. Let us pretend we are children again and the sky is as big as it was then. We used to stand with Father and he’d name each constellation for us. Funny, I’ve forgotten them all, and yet there they are the same as ever. I could feel myself aloft, as if dancing in the night sky. I’d get dizzy and fall.

ANNIE
It’s so. If you squint. Squint, Papa, squint. See, you fly right up there. I’m twirling in the middle of the stars.

UNCLE
Tip me out of this chair!

JEANNE
Goodness, no.

UNCLE
Lay me down, spine to ground.

ANNIE
Papa, help.

(Annie and John tip Uncle out of his chair.)

UNCLE
Thank you, John, Annie child. Now, all able-bodied ones, the same. Eyes up. Spirits aloft.

(Rebecca and Annie lie down. John follows them, then Jeanne. The stars spin overhead; the sounds of insects below echo the music of the spheres.)

REBECCA
There’s Sirius, the Dog Star.

ANNIE
In Canis Major, of course.

UNCLE
“The grand processional of all the stars of night.”

REBECCA
Lyra fading out. Aquila growing bright.

ANNIE
I’m dancing with the dolphin Delphinus.

REBECCA
I’m astride Capricornus, the Sea Goat.

JOHN
The sky will endure.

REBECCA
As long as we see.

ANNIE  
Heaven’s song . . .

UNCLE
Will be sung. The unfortunate ones, the lost, who struggled and wept, whose voices never were heard on earth, they sing to us in the night.

JEANNE
What a lovely thought.

UNCLE
Attend, you, too, shall be blessed by those who sparkle and shine, who cry in the dark.

(Music of the spheres. Sniffley and friend croak.)

JOHN (jumps to his feet)
By god, I feel full of such power. I’ll draft a speech that will be unforgettable.

(Black out. Night music shifts to morning music of the birds.)

(Early the next morning. John has been up all night. Rebecca enters, surprised to see him, she pulls her thin robe around her nakedness.)

REBECCA
You’ve worked all night.

JOHN
This fax made it impossible to work.

REBECCA
Let me. (She takes the fax.) Do they actually dare to say “upon consideration of the Press Office.”

JOHN
My climate-change chapter has been dropped completely from the agency’s annual report!

REBECCA
Your report was peer reviewed, set in type. How dare they?

JOHN
The budget slashing was just the start. It is now nothing but total and complete government censorship of my work.

REBECCA
John, your speech is that much more important because of this. You’ll be speaking outside of NASA as a private citizen. You must come out directly, without hedging, and clearly say that the current administration is censoring its own best scientific minds. Then, you will influence the election. Things will go against them.

JOHN
This threw me so. Science is not a matter of opinion, or of political affiliation. I am not some wild speculator who somehow got on the government payroll. My work has been verified by scientists around the world.

REBECCA
That is exactly how you must start. Come, now, let’s go into your study. You will talk. I shall write. We’ll edit it later, together.

JOHN
There’s worse, Rebecca, worse! The White House has stricken the words “to know and protect the home planet” from the agency mission statement. They have actually done that. Evidently, the earth does not matter any more. It is, now, all about getting to Mars.

REBECCA
Then that will be the title of your speech: “To Know and Protect the Home Planet.”

JOHN
It’s censorship, plain and clear.

REBECCA
The censorship will end once you speak out.

JOHN
I never imagined things would go this far. That climate science could be seen as dangerous! I’m a mild-mannered man, a reasonable, plodding sort of fellow.

REBECCA
But now you have a chance, a real chance. You’ll get national press.

JOHN
If only I can speak clearly, decisively enough . . .

REBECCA
Think of it, John, the growth of a national will. The people will shake off the gloom, the war-weariness, the despair of these last years. There will be no more of this rancor. What joy we will see once the people join together in our common work: to save and protect the home planet.

JOHN
Yes, Rebecca, yes. We can fix this. I must work, work.

(Jeanne enters.)

JEANNE
Up early, everyone?

REBECCA
There’s coffee, shall I bring some?

(Rebecca goes.)

JOHN
Good morning, Jeanne. I hope you slept well.

JEANNE
Like a child in my own bed. And you?

JOHN
Who are these people (scoffing), “True Science”?

JEANNE
Nearly on his deathbed, John, Frank’s thoughts were only of me. If something should happen to Frank, he doesn’t wish me to be alone.

JOHN
You wouldn’t be alone. This is also your home.

JEANNE
How I idolized you when we were young. There is nothing I would not have done. Do you remember, I once punched Tommy Claggs in the face because he called you a “nerd.”

JOHN
I was mortified.

JEANNE
Mother was appalled, but father guffawed. And, I still feel that way.

JOHN
Like punching someone out?

JEANNE
Loyal to my family, above all else. And, suddenly, I am in a position to look out for you, dear, brilliant brother.

JOHN
I see.

JEANNE
What are we arguing about, really? Defend your ideas by all means. No one disagrees with your right to your own thoughts. . . .

JOHN
This paper is bullshit, Jeanne, simply put.

JEANNE
Is that the message you would like relayed?

JOHN
“Natural variability,” “the sun” do not, cannot explain . . .

JEANNE
A reputable, foundation-funded, think tank.

JOHN
Phony science.

JEANNE
There are many, highly placed, educated, and powerful people, who believe that your prognosis, if that’s what you call it, is vastly premature, even alarmist, and would cause enormous economic damage.

JOHN
Did you memorize this? Did your friends in high places tell you what to say?

JEANNE
I do have my own brain, John. It even functions most of the time.

(Rebecca enters, dressed, with two coffee cups.)

REBECCA
Here’s coffee, Jeanne. Or would you rather come into the kitchen and sit?

JEANNE
Thank you. No. I must get back to my post.

JOHN
Quite a brief visit.

JEANNE
Frank thought some fresh air would do me good.

JOHN
More like a mission.

JEANNE
Is that so wrong, an attempt to help my noble brother get along.

REBECCA
I’ll run Jeanne to the train. You can get to work.

JOHN
I’ll excuse myself. (John exits.)

JEANNE
No bother, I’ve called a car. In the old days, Uncle would run us down to the station in the pony cart. Poor, dear, crippled Uncle.

REBECCA
I’ll wait with you. We can go out on the porch.The morning air is so sweet.

JEANNE
So, we still have nice mornings, despite John’s catastrophic predictions.

REBECCA
But of course, up here.

JEANNE
This house seems to have found a new sense of purpose overnight. What is so pressing?

REBECCA
Why, John’s to give a major policy speech.

JEANNE
A speech? John puts people to sleep. Even he used to joke he got his PhD so easily because his entire committee slept through his defense.

REBECCA
Not with something so important to say.

JEANNE
But John always says the same thing, “Far below 2 degrees Celsius.” No one quite knows what he means.

REBECCA
This time, John will have the press on his side.

JEANNE
I see. Where and when is the great day?

REBECCA
Before the election, you can be certain of that.

JEANNE
Splendid. Impressive, in fact. Tell me, Rebecca, what is your birth name?

REBECCA
What do you mean?

JEANNE
Only that you were semiadopted by Dr. West, and you took his name growing up. Don’t look so shocked. John must have mentioned it to me. (car horn) There’s the car. Don’t bother to see me out.

(Jeanne goes; Annie enters.)

ANNIE
Papa! Tell Papa I’m going up to the pond. Come with me, Rebecca, do.

REBECCA
I must help John with his work.

ANNIE
Oh, I see.

REBECCA
I’m sorry, Annie. Next time.

ANNIE
I rescued Sniffley just in time. His life on earth was at risk.

(She goes toward the back door, still talking.)

ANNIE
Perhaps, the entire life of the pond. Therefore, I embark, alone, on a rescue mission, now. It is Atrazine, Uncle and I have no doubt. Nor does poor Sniffley, I suspect. A poisonous pesticide, already banned by the European Union. But you cannot come. You have more important work.

REBECCA
I am sorry, Annie.

JOHN’S Voice
Rebecca!

REBECCA
Your father needs every ounce of me.

(The back door slams.)

(Musical interlude. Uncle and Annie are working at the pond. Days later.)

REBECCA
Annie, come in, I’ve made lunch.

ANNIE
I shall eat tomatoes from the garden.

(Uncle exits.)

REBECCA
I’ve made soup.

ANNIE
No thank you, Rebecca. I am consuming only raw food: vegetables, nuts, and fruit which can be picked and the seeds shit, or shat . . . whatever, wherever, so the source is replenished, the garden grows up again.

(Rebecca comes out of the door.)

(Annie is outside at the pond, intently watching the frogs. Silence, then . . .)

ANNIE
Sniffley is a gender-challenged frog as I am a gender-challenged girl, or as I prefer birl. There may be a difference, however, Sniffley, born a male, albeit so-called deformed with a total of six uneven legs, has also, in the process of becoming an adult frog been feminized, made into a hermaphrodite by the herbicide Atrazine that got by groundwater into his pond . . . and Atrazine can do this to “real men”: lower their testosterone levels, I am told by Uncle, who still feels quite potent himself.

REBECCA
Uncle told you all this?

ANNIE
Uncle and I are engaged in serious research. We are working to ban Atrazine in the United States. We believe once American men understand they are being de-balled, there will come an insurrection. We have made up how-to-dig-a-frog-pond flyers, and we are going to distribute them in town.

REBECCA (repressing a smile)
This is all quite impressive. Does your father know?

ANNIE
Papa is far too busy to know anything at all about me. I am a birl by choice, perhaps, also, due to other forces. We, Sniffley and I, have a profound cross-species bond.

REBECCA
These things work themselves out. We are works in progress, each of us. She musses Annie’s hair affectionately.)

ANNIE
You mustn’t play with me, Rebecca.

REBECCA
Of course, not. I only mean to say, gender identity is fluid throughout our lives. There is no need to label yourself.

ANNIE
Sniffley had no choice.

REBECCA
But you, my birl, must be whatever you wish.

ANNIE
I am thirteen. I am alternately too young and too old for my age. I understand, very well, I am strange.

REBECCA
I think at thirteen I felt exactly the same. And, I don’t think you are in the least strange.

ANNIE
I think you are beautiful, Rebecca.

REBECCA
I like you, too, Annie, oh, so very much, I do!

ANNIE
Well, Sniffley had better go for a swim. (Annie leaves. John comes out. Rebecca laughs.)

JOHN
What are you laughing about!

REBECCA
It is so hard to be young. What a glorious day.

(Silence)

REBECCA
John, I need to discuss my work. I’ve got new satellite results that show quite disturbing new trends . . . (He turns from her.) John? Are you listening to me?

JOHN
They’ve cancelled my speech.

REBECCA
That can’t be. Not after all this.

JOHN
Never mind. I can stop working so hard. Insane to believe that I might have influenced the election by giving a speech on climate change.

REBECCA
What excuse did they give?

JOHN
I’ve been up since 3:00 a.m. My mind’s a fog.

REBECCA
What did they say?

JOHN
It was hubris, Rebecca. You made me believe.

REBECCA
It would have mattered, John. Someone else other than me believed that it would.

JOHN
The Council on Freedom is “suddenly” undergoing an “internal review of program initiatives.” They’ve decided to cancel all public presentations until after the election. Of course, mine was the only major policy speech scheduled.

REBECCA
And they’d promised you major press coverage. Someone got to them, but who?

JOHN
What does it matter? Along with that e-mail came the usual dozens: “Climate change scientists should be executed. You, Bjornson, are a traitor.” “You should drown in your own . . .” Well, you know the word. And others even less well-intentioned.

REBECCA
John, you are not going to lie down and give up. I’ve gotten new results. You have Annie’s future at stake, the future of everyone’s children. You must speak.

JOHN
Do, let’s walk up the mountain. I need to clear my head.

(John and Rebecca walk past Uncle and Annie at the new frog pond. Uncle has cuttings from plants in a basket in his lap in the wheelchair.)

UNCLE
So, we shall surround our pond with rosemary, thyme, and eglantine, partridge pea and blue-eyed grass, a thicket of sassafras, low bush blueberry shrubs, the red flower called Cosmos, and most miraculous of all, this scruffy little wildflower, Torrey’s mountain-mint, endangered the world wide, imperiled, yet, amazement on my face, here it is, to see, to sniff. Sometimes I do despair, how not? Not with you, my dear, no, not in front of you, I tell myself. Forgive me, child. Care of this land was passed to me by your grandfather, a noble soul, like your papa in demeanor. Uncle, he said, they called me Uncle even then, though I had no one, was sublimely unattached, had wandered by and struck by the beauty of the view had stopped to linger here. “You shall be the steward of my land. As far as the eye can see we shall hold in perpetuity. Should my progeny wish to dwell on this domain, you, Uncle, will see the land comes to no harm. No one shall disrupt the mountaintop or mountain stream or bubbling brook.” Your grandfather spoke like that. In those days, nature intervened in all our words. We painted with our tongues, we looked and spoke and kept the land forever in our heads. We walked with beauty inside and out. And now we rescue Sniffley and his like from the mountain pond that somehow has been contaminated with run-off from a source outside of my watch, invisible to my eyes, and we bend down and marvel at a bit of Torrey’s mountain-mint that is nearly alone in all the world. We have our miracles still, small though they are: a sprig of mountain-mint. Once we walked the land, and we seemed minuscule. Old growth forest above our heads, a cacophony of creatures. We sensed our place in the grand design: to marvel at the large and small, the sky, the mountain and the honey bee, the plant beneath our feet, to step lightly, not to leave a mark of where we’d walked. The grasses would rebound, the forest would remain untouched. We would harvest and replace. We would exit as we’d come, gently, unremarked upon.

ANNIE
Uncle, don’t cry. You mustn’t, Uncle. We must work for Sniffley’s sake, and others of his kind, for what we can manage to save. There once was Torrey’s mountain- mint upon this ground. Life is vanishing, Uncle, whole species are no more. I am not numb. I was born into a world where I can feel the vanishing of things. What else can we do, Uncle, but work to save what is?

(Musical interlude. John and Rebecca enter laughing; they have made love on the hilltop.)

REBECCA
I wonder if Annie will be happy, too.

JOHN
I don’t think Annie should know about us.

REBECCA
But, of course she will.

(A volley of shots off.)

REBECCA (laughing)
Fireworks.

JOHN
Shots.

(Rebecca and John scramble to finish dressing. Frank enters. He has a rifle and bag full of dead ducks.)

FRANK
Sorry to burst right in. Who knew?

JOHN
There is no hunting on this land.

FRANK
A little sport, man, for us both. It’s so good to be alive.

JOHN
This land is a nature preserve.

FRANK
Oh, I didn’t realize that. When I was a boy with my dad, we hunted in order to eat. (To Rebecca, with his hand out, smiling) I’m Frank.

REBECCA
Rebecca.

FRANK (to John)
No deer, no pheasants, no food. That’s how it was. Lucky man.

REBECCA
We are both lucky, as it turns out.

FRANK
We snuck onto the rich folk’s land because we had no choice. It was shoot or starve. There was Mom and hungry kids back at the house. We were frightened, you bet. They’d rather shoot one of us than have us bag one of their deer.

JOHN
We don’t patrol this land. But I have a child, and I don’t want hunting here.

FRANK
I wouldn’t do it again.

JOHN
I’ll appreciate that.

FRANK
Now, I hunt for fun. And pleasure is hard to give up.

(Jeanne enters holding the hunting bag with ducks; she sprawls on the ground.)

JEANNE
I have never understood why men love to hunt.

JOHN
It’s quite fine when you eat what you shoot.

FRANK
Thank you for getting my point of view.

JEANNE
I suppose I’ve never understood men.

FRANK
Fishing, too. It was a dirty old river, half-polluted with run-off from the yards, but we needed those fish fries. Now, I fish in the deep sea, full of danger and so damn beautiful.

JOHN
We heard a shark nearly knocked you out.

FRANK
Heart attack with a 150-pound marlin on the line. You know what, I reeled him in. Keeled over after I’d won. Jeanne told you all about it.

JOHN
She didn’t tell us you caught it.

FRANK
Got that fish. I did.

JOHN
Congratulations.

FRANK
Damn right. Lying flat on my back, tubes going in and out, I had a—what do you call it?

JEANNE
We call it an awakening, Frank.

FRANK
That’s it. I woke up, but it was more than opening my eyes. I woke up inside. (To John) That ever happened to you?

JOHN
I’m not sure.

FRANK
You’d sure know if it did. (Quiet, self-reflective) I came from nothing, poor people, honest folks. Eight of us crammed into four rooms. We were lucky if our shoes didn’t pinch, if the furnace worked, if the roof didn’t leak. When my father was killed in the yards, I had to quit school to take his place. (Pause) Jeanne loves me despite all of this.

JEANNE
I love you because of it, Frank.

FRANK
No one gave me a hand. I worked my way up. Everything I have, I’ve earned. Then, all of a sudden, I’m fishing and dying at the same time, but I don’t let go of that line. I wake up. I’m alive. It’s like being reborn. So damn lucky I feel. I wake up determined to live. From now on, whatever I want, I’ll have.

JEANNE
Not quite everything, dear.

FRANK
Sure, sure. Girls are permanently off the table, the desk, out of the private bathroom, too.

JEANNE
Frank!

FRANK
She’s made me an honest man. And here I am alive on this gorgeous day. Triple bypass, good as new. I love science. Man on the moon and me, strong as a twenty-year-old. Soon, on to Mars. There’s water up there. You know you actually get younger when they clear that plaque out, drain those pipes.

JOHN
Good for you.

JEANNE
We feel fortunate, we do.

FRANK
Lucky to live in this great nation with the best medical care in the world. A 150-pound marlin on the line and a heart that’s not worth a damn. But I reeled him in. A miracle that’s what that was. Living proof!

JEANNE
You still need to eat. Let’s go back to the house, I’ll whip something up.

REBECCA
Duck?

JEANNE
I only eat organic food.

REBECCA
Then I wouldn’t eat those.

FRANK
Best to toss them, unless you’ve got a dog.

REBECCA
No dog.

FRANK
We should get a dog. Dogs keep the blood pressure down. Pointer, how about that, or a hound?

JEANNE
That’s so sad. Whatever happened?

REBECCA
Pesticides in the rain, or run-off from higher up. Uncle and Annie are on the case.

JEANNE
Really? Is nowhere safe?

REBECCA
Atrazine has this bad habit of seeping into everything. In Europe, it has been outlawed.

JEANNE
Good. I love French pâté.

REBECCA
And its effects are somewhat unsettling. It feminizes males. They actually start to produce eggs. They grow breasts.

JEANNE
Why, it’s a feminist herbicide. Maybe I will cook the duck, especially for Frank.

FRANK
What are you talking about? You want me with breasts?

JEANNE
I want you soft and malleable, my darling. Every woman does. We pretend to admire your macho ways, but in our hearts, we want wives.

FRANK
Your sister’s a gem. Brains, looks, and she chooses someone like me.

JOHN
Who can explain women?

FRANK
Not me. I’m a simple fellow without a PhD. Changeable as the weather, women are.

JOHN (looks at Rebecca)
I think I know more about the climate than I do about women, actually.

REBECCA
But, John, that’s just it. Something catastrophic is going on. Already, right now, we have lost two million square kilometers of ice.

JOHN
You’re certain, Rebecca? You’ve proof?

REBECCA
I’ve been trying to tell you all day what this morning’s satellite pictures show. I never imagined a melt like this.

JOHN
I’d better take a look. We had better get back to work.

 (Rebecca and John leave.)

FRANK
Did you understand any of that?

JEANNE
The ice is melting, and John is in love with that young woman.

FRANK
Good for John.

JEANNE
I saw how you looked at her, Frank.

FRANK
A man can look.

JEANNE
She’s my brother’s, whatever she is, she’s his.

FRANK
The girl’s been around (nuzzling Jeanne). I can smell it every time. (She lightly smacks him.)

JEANNE
Behave yourself.

FRANK
I’d grow breasts for you, but you like me randy, you do. (They kiss.)

 (Musical interlude. Later on, in the house, John is in his office, out of sight. Jeanne crosses from the garden, with her phone; she enters the house and speaks to him through the office door.)

JEANNE
Let me help you, John. I am your sister, after all.

JOHN
There is nothing further to be done.

JEANNE
But, I’ve done something already. If you’ll stop acting so morose, I will tell you.

JOHN
I’m tired, that’s all. Worn out.

JEANNE
And I can’t possibly have anything to offer.

JOHN (enters the living room)
I didn’t say that.

JEANNE
No, you would never be so rude. You simply ignore me.

JOHN
I’m sorry, Jeanne. I didn’t mean . . .

JEANNE
Oh, stop, silly boy. You take it all so personally. Listen for one instant to someone other than yourself because I have, in fact, solved your problem quite magnificently. We are no longer bemoaning the loss of an after-lunch talk in front of an insular, liberal think-tank. We are now talking about a national prime-time debate.

JOHN
A what?

JEANNE
Indeed. It is all arranged. All I need is your consent. I’ll put you in touch with Roger Morley’s people immediately.

JOHN
Morley?

JEANNE
Morley, yes.

JOHN
Roger Morley from National Week? He’s great.

JEANNE
That’s it.

JOHN
You’ve spoken to him?

JEANNE
In fact, I have. I have spoken directly with Roger.

JOHN
I’ve been on Morley’s program before.

JEANNE
I realize that. Roger said he enjoyed having you as a guest. He absolutely won’t let anyone return he doesn’t like. So, there you are. A fête accompli. I’ve booked you on this Sunday’s National Week. You will have thirty-six minutes to make your case.

JOHN
Thirty-six minutes . . .

JEANNE
It’s a lifetime.

JOHN
My talk is fifty-seven minutes.

JEANNE
Throw it out. You can’t sit there and read like a boozy professor. You have to speak from your heart. (pause) John, do you realize how important this is?

JOHN
Why are you helping me?

JEANNE
It is three weeks before the election. Do you have any idea how many important people are clamoring for that spot?

JOHN
Precisely why I asked.

JEANNE
You are smart.

JOHN
Smart?

JEANNE
Oh, you are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, of course, as father always said, but you’ve also become a bit savvy.

JOHN
You are married to a political operative, Jeanne.

JEANNE
Operative is such a smarmy word.

JOHN
Forgive me, I didn’t mean . . .

JEANNE
I’m a publicist in my own right. Why else would Roger Morley have paid any attention to me?

JOHN
Why do you want to put me on his show?

JEANNE
Give me credit for some independence, will you? You are my twin. If I use my contacts to help you out, that’s how the world works.

JOHN
Come, Jeanne, be honest. If I tell the truth, President Bush is likely to lose.

JEANNE (she laughs)
Forgive me, dear brother. I had no idea you were that powerful.

JOHN
I’m not. But the truth is that powerful, and the truth must be heard.

JEANNE
But, of course, I absolutely agree. Do you want to confirm with Morley or not?

JOHN
Kindly answer my question, first. Why are you doing this?

JEANNE
For you, John, and for our democracy, too. Put all the information on the table. The people will make up their minds.

JOHN
Well, that’s very thoughtful of you, Jeanne. Impressive, in fact.

JEANNE
Thank you. I do not believe in censorship of any sort. Neither does Frank. We are 100 percent for free speech.

JOHN
It just didn’t make sense, at first. Now, of course, it does. I am grateful. I am, truly, Jeanne. This is very fine of you. I shall call Morley at once.

JEANNE
Morley’s people, but it’s cleaner if I speak directly to the great man myself, on your behalf. It makes you seem more important.

JOHN
Yes, fine. Well, I suppose I’d better begin editing my remarks. Wherever is Rebecca?

JEANNE
I’m warning you, John, do not read from prepared remarks. Do not rely on jargon. I can prep you, if you wish. You have absolutely got to sound spontaneous, charming and fresh.

JOHN
I’m not a celebrity. I’m a climatologist.

JEANNE
Look, do something right now, for me. Tell me to my face why you wanted to give that speech, why you jumped at the chance to be on Morley’s show. You have twenty seconds. Go!

JOHN (with simple force and sincerity)
Because the very climate conducive to life on earth, the climate we’ve been lucky enough to live in undisturbed for the past ten thousand years, while life evolved, that climate is a thing of a past. And we are almost certainly the cause. Manmade, anthropomorphic climate change is almost certainly likely to destroy the planet on which we live.

JEANNE
Bravo. Simply take out “almost certainly” and strike “almost certainly likely” and you are perfect. I love the tremble in your voice.

JOHN
Science is never 100 percent. I must leave some small room for doubt. We are 95 percent certain, of course.

JEANNE
Quite. It is much better, John, and then I will never say this ever again. It would be much better for you if you were not to leave any room, any room at all, for the slightest doubt.

JOHN
Well, you may well be right, but almost certain is almost certain, is it not? I cannot speak with utter certainty, no scientist can. I wish I had your skill.

JEANNE
Mine, my lord. There is something of mine that you covet?

JOHN
Come, come, Jeanne, you are much more personable than I.

JEANNE
And yet, you seem so certain of this, this crisis of yours you wish to share.

JOHN
I am certain enormous damage is being done, as certain as anyone can be.

JEANNE
Absolutely sure?

JOHN
I am, yes, absolutely.

JEANNE
Then say so, loud and clear.

JOHN
Well, then, I’d best get to work.

(John exits toward his office; Jeanne walks outside and meets Frank coming across the garden .)

FRANK
He’s agreed?

JEANNE
He jumped at the chance. He’s grateful, in fact. I’m so pleased, dear, truly I was touched. I told him he must be very forceful, extremely clear.

FRANK
It will be a great show. Lindsey and Mortimer are also on board.

JEANNE
Lindsey and Mortimer, whatever for?

FRANK
It’s National Week. It’s fantastic exposure for John.

JEANNE
He thinks he has the entire show to himself.

FRANK
Morley doesn’t take sides.

JEANNE
But you said it would be good for me to do something just for John.

FRANK
You think he could have gotten on Morley without you?

JEANNE
John becomes tongue-tied the moment he feels challenged in any way. Father always over-protected John.

FRANK
Well, now, he’s grown-up.

JEANNE
I did use the word “debate.” I’m quite certain I said that.

FRANK
Good enough.

JEANNE
It’s just that Lindsey and Mortimer . . .

FRANK
John can take care of himself.

JEANNE
I hope so. Really, I do.

 (Blackout. Music changes to television sounds. Rebecca, Uncle, and Annie sit in front of the television; it is the end of the Morley show.)

REBECCA
Energy and energy policy! What happened to climate change?

UNCLE
Turn it off, spare me.

ANNIE
Why didn’t Papa fix it? Why wasn’t Papa brave?

REBECCA
Lindsey is a meteorologist, not a climate scientist. And why Mortimer?

ANNIE
Who cares?

REBECCA
He’s a fossil-fuel lobbyist.

ANNIE
Papa should have said so.

(Television voices)

MORLEY
Dr. Lindsey will have the last word.

LINDSEY
Thank you, Roger. It is my privilege, indeed. Let us put this climate-change hoax to rest once and for all. Let us remember the earth and its ecosystems are robust, resilient, and self-regulating. Nothing human beings have done or can ever do can or will upset the balance of God’s green earth, which is so much more powerful than any of us. It is heresy to believe otherwise. Are we to actually think we are more powerful than God?

(Rebecca turns the televsion off.)

UNCLE
We do God’s work, if we dare. Does God have hands? No, he has us.

ANNIE
Papa was so boring, like a teacher.

REBECCA
All right. They taped this afternoon. He’ll be home very soon. We must put on a brave face.

ANNIE
But he didn’t say what he feels. Uncle would have.

REBECCA
He’s worked so hard. He had so much riding on this.

UNCLE
I hear cries for help. The fish in the sea, the birds on the wing, the frogs, are gasping for breath. We are God’s ears.

ANNIE
All Papa does is listen to Rebecca. All Papa and Rebecca talk is gobbledygook. Uncle says what others feel. We know what is going on. That Morley guy could have talked to Uncle and me.

REBECCA
What would you have said?

ANNIE
I’ll tell you what, the earth is crying, dying. The earth cannot take care of herself. Papa should have said the pond near the waterfall on the hill on our land is polluted and no one knows why this is, but it is so. He should have said my mother died from a fast-growing cancer that killed her when I was only eight years old. Why was that? He should have said his daughter is intersex. Her clitoris is as large as a small penis, and it gets as hard when she looks at her father’s lover. Why is that? She is still only thirteen, and she doesn’t know who she is or what she has to live for. Everyone thinks she is so peculiar. No one loves her but Sniffley, and he’s a frog with six legs who cannot hop straight, and Sniffley is making eggs.

UNCLE
Annie, listen to what you say. You and Sniffley are free to break boundaries, to be. You and Sniffley are hope.

ANNIE
Papa should have said the whole entire world is coming unhinged. He should have slammed the door and left.

(Annie exits, slamming the door.)

UNCLE
We transform. We molt. No moment is ever too late. That is what he should have said.

REBECCA
What have I done?

(Outside)

REBECCA
Annie? Where are you? I can’t see.

ANNIE
Go away.

REBECCA
No, dear, truly, it is not as bad as you make it out.

ANNIE
It’s not? Papa is going to be in a rage.

REBECCA
Yes, I suppose he is. But it wasn’t his fault.

ANNIE
It is never his fault, is it?

(Uncle enters, standing up.)

UNCLE
I am walking, I tell you. I’ve regained use of my legs. A miracle it is.

ANNIE
You are, Uncle, you are.

UNCLE
When we least expect it, we become new. I’m proof.

REBECCA
Uncle, sit down before you fall.

UNCLE
Standing upright! On my own two feet! I imagined it so. It became true. Now, I can get back to work. Not a moment too soon. Great plans can be put into effect. We are saved. Solar panels on the roof, wind turbines on the hill, waves in the sea will power the world.

(Sound of a car approaching, stopping, car door slamming. John walks past them.)

REBECCA
John . . .

(He enters the house, the door slams. She follows him.)

JOHN
It’s my fault.

REBECCA
It’s not.

JOHN
Jeanne warned me to be “certain.” “Absolutely certain.”

REBECCA
She ought to have warned you about Lindsey and Mortimer.

JOHN
Perhaps she didn’t know.

REBECCA
Please. It’s impossible to be that naïve.

JOHN
You are saying my twin sister set me up.

REBECCA
I’m saying she withheld information from you. Lindsey and Mortimer, for instance. If you’d known . . . yes, she set you up.

JOHN
I was terrible.

REBECCA
You were measured, careful. You had the facts.

JOHN
The facts are impossible for ordinary people to understand.

REBECCA
And the lies are so very easy to digest. God controls the weather, doesn’t He?

JOHN
I was so startled I didn’t know how to respond.

REBECCA
“Are you crazy?” might have been a start.

JOHN
I didn’t even speak about the Arctic ice melt. I shall never forgive myself.

REBECCA
It is late, John. You should sleep.

JOHN
Mortimer called me “dangerous to humankind.” He said I am “against the poor.”  For my own “malicious agenda” I would drive “millions of people into poverty.”

REBECCA
Don’t . . .

JOHN
I hit a deer with the car.

REBECCA
Oh, John.

JOHN
The thing flew right at me. I thought it would come through the windshield. Instead there was a horrible crack, like a heart splitting in half. I saw the terror in her eyes.

REBECCA
John, please, sit down. I’ll make you something warm.

JOHN
She looked at me, I tell you, as if she knew me as her executioner. I ought not to have been rolled over like an animal. I could not get out of their way. They were zeroing in right at me with their impossible cant: world poverty. Poverty is flood, drought, when you can’t breathe the air, when you can no longer grow crops, when you have to abandon your land. But I couldn’t speak. The thing fell to the road with the most terrible thud. Her eyes were open the entire time. I didn’t even take my foot off the gas. She’s lying on the ground bleeding out.

REBECCA
John, you’ve got to calm down. You’ve had a terrible disappointment, then a horrible shock. You must sit.

JOHN
Where’s the gun?

REBECCA
What are you doing?

JOHN
Don’t follow me, Rebecca.

(Rebecca tries to hold onto him; he wrests himself free, and grabs the rifle.)

REBECCA
John.

JOHN
I’m warning you. Leave me be.

(Outside in the dark.)

REBECCA
John! Uncle, Annie, where are you?

UNCLE
I’m taking steps.

ANNIE
It is, Uncle, a miracle.

UNCLE
We must believe in miracles, my girl. Because it must happen, it does. You will transform a thousand times. You can be whatever you wish. Sun, wind, and waves will provide. Tomorrow we’ll work. Take my hands. Dance.

(Uncle and Annie do a little jig; Sniffley croaks.)

(Farther up the road, car headlights; the car comes to halt. Jeanne gets out.)

JEANNE
John, whatever are you doing out here on the road?

JOHN
Whoever you are, don’t come any closer.

JEANNE
It’s me, Jeanne. Put that gun down.

JOHN
Don’t you ever again tell me what to do.

JEANNE
Don’t shoot. I came up here to explain.

JOHN
Stand back.

(A shot)

JEANNE
John!

(The morning light begins to dawn.)

JEANNE
John, are you all right?

JOHN
Of course I’m all right. Why are you here?

JEANNE
Once I know you are all right, I will go.

JOHN
What did you do to me tonight?

JEANNE
Put the rifle down. We can talk.

JOHN
Damn the gun. The rifle, whatever you call it. I came here to put a poor beast out of misery. Now get the hell off this land.

JEANNE
It is also my land, John.

JOHN
It’s not yours because you don’t give a rat’s ass about it. You don’t care a fecal pellet about anything but your damned profits and that lout of a husband of yours.

JEANNE
I will not stand here and be spoken to like that, like gutter trash.

JOHN
Good.

JEANNE
Because I am on your side. I got you on Morley’s show. Believe me, I tried my best. I’m sorry, John, truly, I am. I drove here in the middle of the night just to say that.

JOHN
Sorry? For what? For setting me up?

JEANNE
I would never set you up. I coached you, in fact.

JOHN
You lied.

JEANNE
I promise you, I did not know.

JOHN
Foolish of you, Jeanne. Stupid, you have always been.

JEANNE
You dare say that to me?

JOHN
Foolish, yes. That is what stupid means.

JEANNE (hurt)
I see. Not everyone always thinks as you do, John, and if you are to become paranoid whenever someone expresses an opinion that is not yours, that makes it extremely difficult to live in this world.

JOHN
Fuck off, Jeanne. Go.

(He points the gun at her, and she backs away.)

(Rebecca enters and stands. Gently, she holds out her hands. He walks toward her and gives her the gun.)

JOHN
It’s not loaded. I used the last bullet, put it through her skull. Her eyes rolled, but she looked at me. The god taking her out. She didn’t utter a sound. They are watching us. Mute. They don’t shout. I myself feel numb. I cannot make myself heard. Truth. Facts. The future. None of it matters. So, tonight I killed my first deer. We are criminals, every one.

 

Photo credit: Beatriz Schiller

 

The entire script of Extreme Whether will be published in a collection of four plays by Karen Malpede, Plays in Time, by Intellect Press, fall 2017. All public performances, readings, or any use of the text for presentation in any way, is forbidden. For information regarding production rights to Extreme Whether, please contact the author. Please see the theater’s website for video, photographs, and articles about the play and talks by Dr. James Hansen, Dr. Jennifer Francis and others.

 

Read a companion blog post by Karen Malpede here.

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