Theater Review - True confessions

The world according to Karen Wurl

These are some of the things that have happened to poet/playwright Karen Wurl.

As a teenager, she struggled with drugs and alcohol, overdosing on Valium and cold medicine at age 19, which landed her a three-week stint in an Illinois psychiatric ward. She found Jesus and joined a religious group that later “commended her to Satan” when she strayed from its rigid beliefs. She got married twice. She got divorced twice. She raised three daughters virtually by herself. She began her college career at age 37, graduating with a theater degree six years later. She was confined to a wheelchair for six months due to a neurological condition. And she’s had numberless dead-end jobs and cruddy boyfriends.

With such an abundance of “life experience,” it’s no surprise that Wurl draws on her background for her intimate, darkly comic work. Her time in the psych ward inspired her play Only Children, staged at Essential Theatre in 1999. Her experience working at Kroger provided material for her play The Secret Life of the Proletariat, or Personal Care, presented by PushPush Theater in 2000.

Her newest, Miss Macbeth, depicts an ambitious actress (Sarah Falkenburg) who kills her way from an ensemble part to the plum role of Lady Macbeth in a university production of “The Scottish Play.” Wurl recently performed in Macbeth while earning her B.A. at Kennesaw State University, but she didn’t actually murder anyone. (Not that she never wanted to.) Essential Theatre has tapped Wurl for its 2005 Playwriting Award for Georgia writers, and beginning Jan. 10 presents the world premiere of Miss Macbeth (in repertory with Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss and Lee Blessing’s Going to St. Ives).

The Marietta-based writer jokingly refers to her plays and poems as “projectile confession,” but she dislikes the popular image of “confessional writers” as moist-eyed narcissists. “I think people think of it as self-help, just vomiting stuff up, and not art. Every artist is a confessional artist, they’re just not as obvious about it.”

Whether revisiting her troubled teen years or last week’s bad date, Wurl doesn’t come across as a self-pitying navel-gazer in her work. Instead, her plays and poems make sense out of life with incisive clarity and wry comedy. Wurl cleverly inverts familiar turns of phrase and finds the universal in the personal. In her poem “I Met A Nice Man,” she says, “I think we’re an item. He’s a public radio kind of guy. He’s going to keep me under consideration. He’s going to hold me in suspense. He’s going to thank me for my submission.”

In person, Wurl comes across as shy and vulnerable, but when she slams a poem before an audience, her sly, deadpan manner seems impervious to life’s tribulations. She discovered the flowering spoken word movement of the 1990s by sheer accident. She quips, “I first did it because ‘the other kids were doing it!’”

In 1994, a group of friends and fellow writers all but dragged her to a poetry reading at a converted warehouse on DeKalb Avenue. She doesn’t recall which poems she brought, but vividly remembers being seized by an uncontrollable urge to rise when it was her turn to read. “There was something in that impetus to stand that told me I had found something I had to pursue. The world opened up.”

Wurl went from reluctantly reading in front of a handful of friends to avidly seeking out 12 readings a month, hosting a weekly poetry slam at Caffeinds coffee shop and three times competing at the National Poetry Slam.

Recent health problems directly impeded the impulse that made her stand up for poetry. Wurl has faced persistent problems with circulation in her feet due to the rare neurological disorder Raynaud’s disease, and walking became increasingly difficult for her. One May day in 2001, while making her way across the Kennesaw State campus, she found herself unable to take another step, and had to be taken to an emergency room in an ambulance. Wurl’s lack of health insurance made medical tests prohibitively expensive, but she found help from PushPush Theater, which raised about $900 for her (almost enough for two MRIs) at a benefit production of Murray Mednick’s play 16 Routines. Medication now makes Wurl’s mobility manageable.

She finds the subjects of her writing gradually changing from disappointing romantic relationships to mortality and death. She takes it on faith that humor and honesty provide the best avenues for her to connect with other people. “My mission has always been to talk about myself, however freakish I might feel about my looks, my obsessions, my social ineptitude, my failures and my fears of failure, my distinct lack of physical prowess, etc. I trust that on some essential level, my experience is not so very alien from yours.”

Her instincts hold up. When Wurl unburdens herself, things lighten up not only for her, but for everyone within the sound of her voice.