In The Wilderness

by Katharine Armbrester

Cast of Characters
Julian: A woman in her twenties.
John David: A man in his twenties.

SETTING: There is only one chair on the empty stage, and there should be streaming but dull light emanating from the left side of the stage.

AT RISE: JULIAN enters from stage left, lurching forward. She is having a panic attack in a visceral physical response to traumatic memory. She continues gasping as JOHN DAVID enters also from the left. He is shocked to see her reaction, but his grim face suggests it is not entirely a surprise. He approaches and reaches out a hand to touch her shoulder, then draws it back as if by instinct, but leaves it extended, palm downward like a blessing as he draws back a couple of steps.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Gosh, Julian—what can I do?

JULIAN
Her gasping lessens slowly, this time, she holds out a trembling hand towards him and he takes it. Her attack lessens to a low ebb—the waning tide of exhaustion. In the interval of twenty seconds or so it took for her attack to wind down, John David bows his head slightly and not raised it. Now Julian looks up at him with weary mirth, still gasping slightly.

Don’t—tell me you’re praying?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            Smiling shyly
Old habits die hard, I guess?

                                                            JULIAN
            Snorts
You were the one who should have been named after a saint! It’s wasted on me.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            Motions like he’s digging keys out of his pockets
Look, the car’s right over there. Just sit in it for a sec.
            JULIAN lets go of his hand and takes three steps over to the chair, which will stand in for his car, and she sits down

                                                            JULIAN
Just give me two minutes.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Take your time. It’s just going to be more of the same in there for the rest of the night. Purity conferences haven’t changed a bit in ten years, and they’ll be saying the exact same stuff ten years from now.

                                                            JULIAN
            Again JULIAN snorts, and rolls her eyes
I know that’s right!
                                                            JOHN DAVID
I don’t think its wasted.

                                                            JULIAN
What?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Your name. Your saint’s name. Wasted. On you… I mean.

                                                            JULIAN
Why?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            Muttering
I don’t… know. It’s hard for me to talk… deeply… on the spot.

                                                            JULIAN
            Fondly
Well, that’s probably why you write so well.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
You are a fantastic writer. The paper is luck—

                                                            JULIAN
If I was a fantastic writer, I’d have the guts to have made it through all that—like a professional!

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            Reassuringly
It’s not about guts, Julian, that stuff—it cuts close.

                                                            JULIAN
            Sighs sharply, like it was wrenched from behind her ribs
It cuts deep.
            She looks up at him
We’re here in a car… in the dark… alone… know how many rules we’re breaking this moment?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Well, you’re in the car—I’m standing outside!

                                                            JULIAN
That doesn’t matter—don’t you know how many ways we could stumble—right here—halfway in the car?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
On top of the car?

                                                            JULIAN
On the pavement?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            Pointing out to the audience
Out in the middle of the dogwood-lined driveway!

                                                            JULIAN
We’re sinning just talking about it!

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Sinning just thinking about it!
            They burst out laughing, but not even their laughter is truly joyful. As they bantered back and forth their voices increased in volume and took on the tone of voluptuously indignant TV preachers. Now, when they stop laughing, they merely look worn out once again.

                                                            JULIAN
Don’t they ever get tired?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Of what… the hypocrisy?

                                                            JULIAN
Pfft… to have a sense of hypocrisy, you gotta have a sense that the show you’re putting on is fundamentally wrong. Men like that dude in there make so much money out of their spiel—they’re not even cognizant of the wrong they’re doing anymore—they’re as far gone as the second step over a cliff. No—what I mean is… don’t they get tired of being afraid all the damn time? Don’t they get tired of being watchmen on a wall?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Afraid… of sex, you mean?

                                                            JULIAN
Yes, and everything else! If they have a precaution against everything—of every human situation and relationship—if every thought is a potential sin, then what on earth are you afraid of except everything?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
I never thought of it till now.

                                                            JULIAN
            Motions to stage left from where they entered
You saw my research—you helped me find the statistics—you know how much federal money goes into abstinence programs, purity balls—how much people spend on the books, the conferences, like this one—
            She stops abruptly, then leans on the top of her chair and rubs her eyes with her hand
What gets me the most…is how young they get started on the kids. Gotta get hold of ‘em before the world does! Gotta make ‘em scared of the world, and of everything in it, including your friends of the opposite gender!
            She pauses.
I was ten years old when a church lady told me that my top was too tight.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            He sighs, then sits down on the ground beside her, folding his arms over his knees
I was eleven when my youth leader told me that guys had uncontrollable urges, and that I needed to learn to “bounce my eyes.”

                                                            JULIAN
“Bounce your eyes?”

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Ya know… well… look quickly away if we see a girl… I mean a woman who is…distracting, tempting. Gosh, it sounds so stupid.

                                                            JULIAN
            With a biting edge to her voice
It sounds so wrong, because it is wrong. It’s ironic, I never heard a single person mention Matthew 5:29.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            Laughs sheepishly
I’m the pastor’s son, I should know this…I’m blanking out!

                                                            JULIAN
Jesus tells the men to gouge out their eyes if they lust. I don’t care if he was being literal or not…He wasn’t blaming the women, he didn’t say it was women’s fault for making guys “stumble,” no matter what they were wearing. He put the ball in the guy’s court.
            She snorts slightly
There were times I liked Jesus, like when he actually listened to women and valued their opinions. I sure didn’t hear church leaders talk about those conversations much.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Gosh… you’re so right Julian.
            Looks at her admiringly
I guess that’s why… it’s so different, it feels so radical just sitting here and talking together… arm’s length apart…
            He stretches out his arm, when he accidentally brushes her knee with his hand he says “oops,” then skooches back until he is a full arm’s length away from her
There. I made room for Jesus.
            JULIAN laughs sharply, but JOHN DAVID becomes pensive again
I think it’s true though.

                                                            JULIAN
            Upset, her voice rising
What? That crap in there?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
No, no, no… I meant… You’ll think I’m… I mean—you told me before that you don’t believe… anymore, so you’ll think I’m—

                                                            JULIAN
Just because I wiped that shame-swamping dust off my feet doesn’t mean I think you’re stupid. Endearingly, hopelessly naïve, maybe.
            She smiles at him
You can say anything to me, if it’s really you speaking, not what you’ve been told to say, and I won’t say that you’re stupid.
            Pauses
We’re adults, we have the freedom to listen to differing views, the right to disagree now, remember?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Right. Well. What I was gonna say…is that if Jesus is here, he’s here
            He gestures to the space around them
He’s sitting with us, enjoying the conversation, taking refuge from the Pharisees in there—
            Now he gestures to the left of the stage
—with their binding “heavy burdens grievous to be borne,” to quote their good ole King James.
            Sighs
I’ve just… gotta keep believing that Jesus is different, Julian. Maybe it’s weak for me to want to hold on to the tattered pieces of what I’ve got left, but I don’t think it’s weak to want to weave it new. I’ve got to believe in a God who made and meant for us to talk—about anything—to sit and talk and air our souls out to each other without fear. He — He stands up.
He’s not in there—not standing on the stage looming over three hundred vulnerable teenagers, with tight skinny jeans and $400 sneakers telling the girls that they’d better dress modestly because “guys are visual creatures.” He’s not there, or in any youth group in America telling the guys that if they stumble, well, it happens, they’re inherently aggressive, sexually-driven creatures, but—

                                                            JULIAN
—but girls, you get only one shot—and if you fail, you’re ruined. Damaged goods. No real Christian guy wants a non-virgin. Not even if you were raped… not even if it was an elder in your church that—
            She buries her face in her hands for a moment, then lowers them, hugging herself
It’s that… damn rose thing.
            She imitates an over-enthusiastic young male preacher
“Now everybody pass the rose around, and each of you take a petal as it goes by—now each time you go out with a guy—every date, there goes a petal—every time you kiss, every time you give a piece of yourself away there goes another petal—it’s just like this rose. Look what happens—LOOK!”
            JULIAN rises and approaches the orchestra pit, holding out her extended hand to the audience as if she’s holding something between her fingers
Look—no petals! All that’s left is a barren stalk. And who on Earth wants a bare, ugly rose… with no petals?
            Here she again covers her face with her hands, and looks the very picture of shame… shame that is completely undeserved. JOHN DAVID can’t bear it and rises and stands beside her. Again, tentatively, he reaches a hand out—but then appears to remember—no fear—and he puts an arm gently around her shoulder, and she immediately lays her head on his shoulder in response, and they fold their arms around each other. After a while they separate, but JULIAN still holds on to JOHN DAVID with one hand as she wipes her nose with the other.

                                                            JULIAN
Sorry.

                                                            JOHN DAVID
No! I meant—
            He gulps at his own vehemence; she looks at him, then nods

                                                            JULIAN
Right. I’m not sorry. I should have gotten much more snot on you while I was at it.
            She smiles, and swings his hand like children do—children before they learn to fear and avoid each other

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Look, you stay out here for the rest of it, and I’ll go back in and—

                                                            JULIAN
No, no.
            She lets go of his hand and straightens, combs her hair out of her face
I’m better now. Well…not really, but—the paper wants both our perspectives, since we grew up in it, and I…I want my say, and I’m going to get it!

                                                            JOHN DAVID
            He smiles at her, then he walks over to the chair like he’s closing a car door, then he turns to JULIAN)
I know now, what I was thinking of earlier.

                                                            JULIAN
Huh?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
About your name.

                                                            JULIAN
            Smiling
My saint’s name? What about it?

                                                            JOHN DAVID
Well, think of the saints… most of them didn’t fit into socially accepted roles—they didn’t do a single thing that any of the sober-suited preachers or skinny-jeaned youth group leaders tell us to do: get married, make money, bring up your 2.3 children in the fear of the Lord and each other, etc. The really great old saints shot off their mouths to the powers that were, wrote books that upset the church, were outcasts… barren stalks… lone voices crying out in the wilderness. They didn’t anything their fearful, purity-conference-attending neighbors did—but they sat, and talked with Jesus. They had no fear.
            He smiles at her
I think that suits you pretty well.

                                                            JULIAN
            She stands for a moment pondering this, then turns away, facing the left of the stage. She then turns back and holds out her hand, and JOHN DAVID takes it. Now she smiles.
I think that suits us both.

            They EXIT together.


Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.

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