A trip to the moon on ‘Gossamer’ wings

Gossamer has lost weight since its robust Middle English youth. These days we think of gossamer as light, airy, elusive, delicate, evanescent. Yet in its original form it was a simple compound of the terms for goose and summer. A sturdy word, with physical impact. The squawk and peck and heft of a barnyard bird. The good green moss and fern by the banks of a summer stream. Things you hear and feel and smell and touch.

Yet all that is solid fades away, and in that disappearance is the essence of gossamer. Gossamer flits in and out of physical reality. Now you see it. Now you don’t. A memory, a tickle, a promise, a hint. A window between worlds, whispered.

Tuesday morning, in the faded light of a perfect autumn day, I drove into downtown Portland to the Dolores Winningstad Theatre to take in the premiere of Gossamer, Newbery Award winner Lois Lowry‘s stage adaptation of her own children’s novel, with a crowd of fifth through seventh graders. Yes, Oregon Children’s Theatre‘s production has its shimmery moments — it’s about dreams and the benevolent, more- and less- than human race that creates them — but director Stan Foote keeps things grounded in the physical. These supposed creatures of the ether, with their impetuous curiosity and sturdy country ways, seem like yeomen and women of the goose-summer days. They’re like characters from Piers Ploughman.

Little wonder. Lowry’s dream makers, who aren’t quite sure themselves exactly who and what they are, exist in the imagination — and in this formulation, “exist” and “imagination” carry equal weight.
They are caretakers of humans (and animals, too), and therefore linked to corporeality, even if they are only fleetingly embodied themselves. Like so many good stories for children — Mary Norton‘s The Borrowers, William Mayne‘s Hob and the Goblins — they give concrete form and personality to unexplainable things. And like the Christian transcendentalists of children’s lit, Madeleine L’Engle and C.S. Lewis (you could add Tolkien, but in spite of his grand-scale moral dualism he seems so much more thoroughly earthen to me), Lowry creates a world in which an unseen battle between good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, love and anger is just offstage of the human characters’ lives, determining the actions and reactions of what they see.

Nor are we far here from the pantheism of the old Greek and Norse and Celtic tales, a pantheism that has been largely relegated to the children’s bookshelves (think Harry Potter and Rick Riordan‘s Percy Jackson adventures) but which in our post-denominational culture is closer to a lot of people’s actual spiritual beliefs than most religious and cultural pundits admit. In all of these stories, there is a practicality to the transitory, and that which is not seen is more real than that which we think of, commonly, as reality.

Christopher Hitchens no doubt would sniff (I think of him sniffing often and to practiced effect, from somewhere behind his cheerfully corpulent ego) but there is in the human mind or soul or whatever you want to call it a will to believe. Whether or not the universe is formless, we see it through an ordered lens — we must make patterns of it, and so the argument about whether the patterns actually exist is of limited practical importance. The truth is, we don’t know what’s beyond, and it’s children and advanced mathematical thinkers who seem to grapple most gracefully with this humbling fact. If we don’t know, all sorts of things are possible. Follow L’Engle through time and space; or Stephen Hawking to the outer bounds; or Lowry, in Gossamer, to the invisible battle for the spirit of a lonely and abused 8-year-old boy. The answers are suggestions, and the suggestions open doors.

So, here we are in the land of belief. And I don’t mean a particular or even religious belief, although for many people belief has extreme particularity. I mean, simply, that in our great children’s stories we are in a land of open possibility, a place where the asking of primal questions has vital force. Contrary to the common understanding that children’s stories are driven by nostalgia and escapism, the best aim straight for the heart of the matter — the truth about how the isolated self fits in to the incomprehensible infinity of the universe. They are the essence of literature.

None of this tells you a lot about the play Gossamer, and in a way that’s fitting.
Lowry’s drama (and presumably her novel, which I haven’t read) is about the importance of things not seen. So, how does the idea of belief — or, if you don’t like that word, of conscious connection to a greater web of existence — work its way onstage?

First, of course, the dream makers, who represent the power of benevolent suggestion, are given physical form and personality. (Some would say this is the way history has given birth to the idea of God, physicalizing an unfathomable outside force that also comes from inside the human mind.) True, they’re less sophisticated intellectually than Shakespeare’s Puck, who avoids all matters of moral decision-making by being utterly amoral: He is simply what he is. Lowry’s dream makers are more representational, more metaphorical. But as characters, even fleetingly nonhuman ones, they’re also a kick. She gives them foibles — forgetfulness, crotchetiness, insatiable curiosity — as she makes it clear that, as real as they seem, they aren’t quite real. They have limits, and if they exceed their bounds they essentially turn to the dark side, becoming Sinistines, the bringers of nightmares. Interestingly, the Sinistines lose their human form: We see them as alarming lights, hear them as fierce winds. They, too, are elements of nature. But does their disembodiment make them lesser than the dream makers, or closer to the actuality of pure thought? And which side of the dream world is a poor mortal to believe?

The human story is about Johnny, a precocious 8-year-old boy who’s been beaten by his dad and temporarily placed in the home of a gentle woman in her 70s, waiting for his also abused mother to get her act together so she can take him home again. It’s a familiar story in one way or another to a lot of kids in the audience, and it gets fine performances, especially from young spitfire Chase Klotter as the boy and Vana O’Brien as the old woman. Both of them, as well as the mom (Rebecca Martinez) and even the family dog (Fergus Firth) have to put their trust in things they can’t see.

But if that were the end of things, Gossamer would be basically a junior-version kitchen sink drama. It’s the existence of the other world, of that William Blake vision of a kingdom just out of sight, that quickens the imagination. It’s the door between two worlds, which, from another way of looking at it, are the same expansive world, after all. And here, director Fast’s decision to dress the ideas in vivid plain clothes pays off, emphasizing the shifting balance between the actual and the imaginary. Reliable old pros Jim Crino and Eric Hull blend with younger Kerry Ryan and a charming fifth grader — Winter Wagner, as Littlest One, the precocious apprentice dream maker who sets everything in motion — to downplay the story’s lesson-giving and let it take wing as pure storytelling.

Because a good story, as everyone knows, is as elusive as a goose in summer.