A Moment At The Susten Pass

In case you missed the Grand Rapids Art Musuem Friday night of one-acts, here's the play that I wrote. It was directed by Lisa Nowak and performed beautifully by Laura Michels and Matt Jansen. A big thank you to Austin Bunn for creating the event and Kerri Vander Hoff for letting us explore the GRAM in a new way. Here's the scene:

A Moment at the Susten Pass

a one-act play based on the painting by Durand

written by Tanya Eby

JUSTIN is a GRAM guard, standing in front of the Durand piece. He is wearing an earpiece, which he occasionally seems to listen to. He can be standing ‘guard’ even while people come into the room.

LYNNE enters. She hangs out with the crowd for a moment, checks her program. She moves a step forward, and seems very touched by the painting.

LYNNE: It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

JUSTIN does not look at the painting. He nods.

LYNNE: It’s funny…it reminds me…the way the clouds reach to the sky, the mountains…I…

LYNNE is struggling with some emotion. JUSTIN seems concerned.

JUSTIN: Are you all right? Do you want me to call someone?

LYNNE: No! No. It’s fine. I just…the picture reminds me of my dad. Isn’t that funny? It reminds me of a story he used to tell me when I was a girl. I haven’t thought about that in, oh, forever. Well, halfway to forever maybe. Oh, my dad….

LYNNE starts to cry a little, but tries to stop.

JUSTIN: Maam…miss? Do you…should I…you want a Kleenex. I’ve got one in my pocket but it might be…yeah. You probably don’t want that. You okay? You want to sit? You can you know. Take all the time you need.

LYNNE sits, fumbles in her purse, pulls out a handkerchief.

LYNNE: I am so sorry! I feel absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know where all this emotion is coming from. Is there a full moon or something?  (she laughs) Oh, man. It just…it’s silly…it just makes me think of my dad.

JUSTIN: Is your dad…I mean…has he…he passed away?

LYNNE: What? Oh, no. No! He’s in Albequrque. He lives there. I just saw him last weekend.

JUSTIN: Oh. Okay. Good.

LYNNE: I must look like such a freak. Crying about a painting! And I am not an emotional person. I’m really not.

JUSTIN: Don’t worry. It has that effect on a lot of people.

LYNNE: Really? People come in here, remember a story their father told them when they were a girl, and then they break down?

JUSTIN: Every time. (pause). No. No, everyone is different. Some people don’t even notice it. A lot of people like the more modern stuff, you know, bright colors, abstract emotion or no emotion, but something like this…something like this is quiet. Unassuming.

LYNNE: You make it sound like a girl at a party. The one that people don’t notice.

JUSTIN: (laughs). Yeah. Well. Or a guy. The one, you know, that people don’t notice.  The one that is sort of in the background but has stories to tell if someone would only…

LYNNE: Listen.

There is a beat when they look at each other, some kind of human connection.

LYNNE (brightly): The story my dad used to tell me was about the Land of Elnono.


LYNNE: El. No. No. I had a stuffed animal, a grey elephant that I called Elnono, and I carried him with me everywhere, and at night my dad would tell me about a magical land where Elnono lived. In my mind, it looked just like that painting.

JUSTIN: Your elephant lived on a mountain? I hate to tell you this, but it sounds like your dad didn’t know much about elephants.

LYNNE: No. No, he didn’t. What he did know about, though, was magic. Creating something magical. Even in the darkest of times.  Like when my mom…Well. In the Land of Elnono, everything was perfect. Golden light, lush grass for Elnono to eat, a river for him to play in. Elnono had friends and laughter and everything he wanted.

JUSTIN: Sounds nice.

LYNNE: Yes. And then on one of our moves, I lost Elnono.

JUSTIN: One of your…

LYNNE: One of our moves. Yes. We didn’t stay in one place for long. My mom wasn’t in the picture, and we had to travel a lot for my dad’s work. And, well, that’s another story. But…I lost Elnono. Couldn’t find him anywhere and I went berserk. I must’ve been like five and I think it was the first time I really realized that things you love, people you love, they can leave you and never come back. Something about mortality. And I was just crying and crying, I was hysterical and that’s when my dad told me about the great mountain that reached to the sky. He pulled me on his lap and I remember he smelled like coconut lotion. Sunscreen or something. He pulled me on his lap and I snuggled into him, putting my face against the crook of his neck, you know what I mean, and he told me about what happened to Elnono.

LYNNE pauses, or grabs something from her purse or something.

JUSTIN: Well? What happened? Was he okay?

LYNNE: Yeah. He was okay. See, Elnono climbed that mountain. I swear, it’s that mountain right there. He worked really hard and he made it to the top and on some days, when the light is just right, you can see him, dancing in the clouds with his friends. That’s what my dad told me, and I believed him. And when I look at this painting, I can see him.

LYNNE motions to the painting.

LYNNE: Can you see him?

JUSTIN looks. Really looks.

JUSTIN: Elnono or your dad?

LYNNE smiles.

JUSTIN: I almost think I can.  Right…there.

LYNNE: Yeah. Exactly. (pause) So. (LYNNE leans in and reads his nametag) Justin, what do you see? JUSTIN: What do I see?

LYNNE: Yes. Exactly. What do you see? Doesn’t anyone ever ask you that? JUSTIN: Uhm. No. I’m just a guard.

LYNNE: And are you the guy at the party that no one notices? JUSTIN: I’m pretty quiet, yeah.

LYNNE: There’s no…

JUSTIN: Girlfriend? No. Noooo. Not yet. Maybe. I mean, I don’t have a ton of…I don’t…

LYNNE: One is all you need.

JUSTIN: Yeah. One is sort of…uhm…all I want. I just. Yeah.


LYNNE: I do want to know, though. What you see.

JUSTIN: No. You really don’t. I don’t know anything about art.

LYNNE: Even better. I don’t want to know what the experts see. I just want to know what you see. Unless you don’t…

JUSTIN: Oh, no. No! It’s totally okay. I’m just not used to, talking. Here. Where I work. Mostly I just try to be invisible.

LYNNE: You’ll have to try harder, I’m afraid, because I see you.

JUSTIN: You do, huh?

LYNNE: Yes. I do.

JUSTIN: Ha! Well…When I look at this painting? I see…well….you know…. Asher Durand, founder of the national Academy of Design, began painting about 1830. In 1836 he went on an expedition with painter Thomas Cole into the Adirondacks.

LYNNE: You don’t see that!


LYNNE: No! You memorized it. It’s on the placard right there.

JUSTIN: I have a lot of time on my hands. (he laughs) I don’t really see anything. I mean I see things, yeah. I see this god of a mountain and how fierce it is, but peaceful too, and if I really look, I see people, some shepherds or something, but they’re so insignificant. They’re just going about their lives, almost a part of the landscape itself, while in the distance, rolling hills, just…you know…the expanse of it. And the blue sky, and those clouds, man, those clouds that are either a storm or the passing of a storm. So I see all of that, but mostly, mostly I just feel…Oh, this might sound weird, I feel…peaceful. I feel like I’m almost standing where those people are, like all the problems in my life are so small, so insignificant that I can just look out at the world around me and feel like everything is going to be okay. I look at this painting and I just…I just breathe.

LYNNE: It’s a painting that reminds you to breathe?

JUSTIN: Yeah. I guess. The closer thing would be…not that it reminds me to breathe, but that the painting itself is somehow like a breath. Quiet. A swift intake of breath. A moment of stillness. And, I guess, a release.

LYNNE: Yeah. It’s like a breath. Or a secret.

JUSTIN: Or a story a father tells his daughter, a long time ago.

There is a moment.

LYNNE walks up to JUSTIN and holds out her hand.

LYNNE: Justin, I’m Lynne. It’s a pleasure to meet you.

They shake hands. They shake hands for a while.

JUSTIN: Yeah, yeah. It really is. A pleasure, I mean. Meeting you. At the Sustan Pass.

LYNNE: I like that. That’s what we’ll tell people.

JUSTIN: We’ll tell people?

LYNNE: When they ask where we met. We’ll say we met at the Sustan Pass. And then we’ll both take a deep breath. (pause) Which you should really do now. Are you breathing? Are you okay?

JUSTIN: Yeah. I’m breathing. I’m completely breathing.

LYNNE: Good.

They turn and look at the painting. LYNNE moves close enough so that their arms touch.

JUSTIN: It’s beautiful.

JUSTIN is looking at the painting, and LYNNE turns to look at JUSTIN.

LYNNE: Yeah. It is.