In the program notes for his new play, Reapers, playwright and director John O’Keefe describes the work as a “memory of a fantasy,” “What in Greece was the island, in Iowa is the farm. The farmer is the king, his wife, the queen, his daughter, the princess, and his son, the prince. Joey Beam is the chorus. The storm has already happened. The play is being performed by ghosts.”
Indeed, life down on the farm as presented by O’Keefe has as much in common with the Furies as it does with any Norman Rockwell portrait of a country family at table. For the Fox family, working a hardscrabble plot with nothing to farm but hay, everything has gone rotten before the play begins. Hulda, the mother, is catatonic, a wheelchair bound manikin her son describes as having been stuffed, but who from time to time awakens to terrorize all. Mildred Fox, the matriarch of this Orestesian brood, is a brutalized housewife longing to kill either her husband or her son, it doesn’t seem to matter which. Her daughter Deirdre is a sometimes innocent but more often flirtatious young woman on the prowl. Son Bruce, whose major activities include raping the sleeping daughters of nearby families, nightly dueling with his father, and ultimately killing his best friend, characterizes his behavior as one of “startlement,” an activity which consists mainly of popping out from beneath the bed of a young man, Tom O’Brien, whom the family has obtained from the state juvenile home to help with the three-day endurance test described as reaping. Locked in the basement between long stretches of hard work, Tom is subjected to homoerotic “startlements” by Bruce as well as the love-starved blandishments of Deirdre. The father is the kind of farmer my own Iowa grandfathers were, men who did little but work themselves into death.
Los Angeles, August 1, 2005
Reprinted from My Year 2005: Terrifying Times (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2006).