"Happiness," says playwright and educator Robert Caisley, "is the perpetual act of deluding oneself."
Caisely, who teaches playwriting and dramatic literature at the University of Idaho, didn't actually say that. It's a quote ("And probably a totally butchered quote," he laughs) from the famously unhappy English author Lytton Strachey, who preferred sad people to happy ones.
The sentiment—that a sense of happiness may be just a pathetic delusion—is front and center in Caisley's new comedy-drama, opening this weekend in the Studio at Sixth Street Playhouse, where the playwright's popular show Kite's Book had a run in 2011.
Directed by Lennie Dean, and featuring Ed McCloud, Liz Jahren, Brian Glenn Bryson and Rose Roberts, Happy is part of a "rolling world premiere" that includes productions in Miami, Montana and New Jersey. According to Caisley, the idea for Happy came about while grading papers for a literature class he teaches every year.
"One of the assignments I give," he explains, "is for students to write a paper about the tragic flaws of a famous protagonist from the Western canon. A few years ago, as I was reading paper after paper, I realized that a character's tragic flaw, in most literature, is something negative. It's bloodlust or avaricious ambition or blind folly, or something recognizably bad like that."
As he read, Caisely began set himself an interesting challenge: to write a play in which the protagonist's fatal flaw was not negative at all, but something typically regarded as a positive thing. Something like . . . happiness.
"What happens," he asks now, "if a person, a sculptor—by all reports the happiest person you'll ever meet—encounters someone who doesn't believe in the concept of happiness, who believes that happy people are deceitful and devious, are lying to themselves and others? What would happen if, over the course of an evening, that sense of contentedness is chipped away at, little by little, until the protagonist begins to question his own sense of identity completely?
"Whatever happens next," Caisley laughs, "it's got to be pretty interesting, right?"
Interesting—and unpredictable. One has to wonder, with such a potentially farcical set-up, loaded also with conflict and drama, is Happy, the play with the upbeat name, a comedy or a tragedy?
To answer that question, Caisley paraphrases yet another quote, this one from the great playwright Harold Pinter.
"It's a comedy," he says with a laugh, "until it stops being a comedy."
'Happy' runs Thursday–Sunday, April 5–21 at the Sixth Street Playhouse. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. Thursday–Saturday at 8pm; 2pm matinees on Sundays. $10–$25. 707.523.4185.