Playwright David Turkel confronts the fear of the future in the surreal Key to the Field. | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Playwright David Turkel confronts the fear of the future in the surreal Key to the Field.

Maybe you'll understand how David Turkel felt, and why he struggled with his latest play, Key to the Field. It was two summers ago, and what Turkel was hearing was news of melting ice caps and terrorist bombings; what he was trying to do was not lose hope in the future. Specifically, and although he's nobody's father, he was desperate to avoid feeling "that there wasn't going to be a future to enjoy for any child that I might have."

Turkel, 37, lives in Iowa. During the three years he spent in Pittsburgh, two of his plays were staged here to strong reviews, both through Bricolage Productions: the historical epic Wild Signs and Holler, a trailer-park drama.

Key to the Field began as an exercise in writing a "normal" play, a realistic piece with a conventional narrative. But the play -- about a teacher who upsets his students' parents by talking politics in class -- rebelled. It didn't want to be normal. "It was stymying me," says Turkel. He's a tall, wiry West Virginia native wearing a golf shirt screen-printed with three six-shooters, shod in his usual cowboy boots, as he stands outside the Downtown gallery space where Bricolage is rehearsing his play. "I hated it more than anything I'd ever written."

Rewriting Key prior to Bricolage's July 2006 staged reading of the piece, Turkel replaced 10 pages of dialogue with one character's single, self-destructive act. "It broke it open for me," he says. The play became less about talking politics than about living the politics of fear, especially fear of the future. The protagonist's newborn daughter also changed, reflecting the play's new, surreal direction. She's now an infant who bursts, according to stage directions, "into a million pieces, like a clock."

"I hate the idea of a stage baby," says Turkel without heat, "this phony crappy thing with the mom cooing over the baby. ...

"The only way to approach that was to smash the baby."

Key to the Field won the audience vote in Bricolage's staged-reading series. The full production is directed by Jed Allen Harris, a local-theater veteran who teaches at Carnegie Mellon. The venue, in the first floor of 937 Liberty Ave., is low-ceilinged, the stage area wide and shallow, the action close to the audience. The cast includes Sam Turich as the teacher, who's named Skip; Tami Dixon as his wife; and Martin Giles as the cop Logan, a sorry clown who turns into an empathetic monster. Meanwhile, in the play's parallel-universe narrative, Giles and Dixon do double duty as a would-be revolutionary and his adult daughter, who inadvertently force Skip to confront his worst fears.

Key to the Field takes its title from a Magritte painting in which shards of a shattered window pane, though lying in a field, retain the image of the view they'd formerly looked out on. In the play, Skip's world begins breaking up after someone throws a brick through his window. One of Turkel's goals is to explore such ruptures, including the one caused by the baby itself, whose fate obsesses Skip. "Through the baby," says Turkel, "the future comes flooding into his living room."

"A lot of it is [about] mastering fear, which is kind of a useless and worthless thing," he says. "[Skip has] allowed this fear to sort of neuter him."

Turkel moved to Iowa in 2005 when his partner, writer and actor Elena Pasarello, enrolled in the University of Iowa's graduate writing program. His full-time job is managing the bar at a casino steakhouse. He calls it "not the best place to not lose your faith in humanity, at some points."

Key to the Field is partly about clinging to such faith -- or, indeed, to humanity itself. "I was trying to write an angry play, because my instinct was, 'I must be angry,'" Turkel says. But, he says he realized, "it's not that I'm angry; I'm really sad."

Key to the Field Sept. 19-Oct. 7. 937 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $15. 412-381-6999 or

click to enlarge Key players: Sam Turich (left) and Tami Dixon.
Key players: Sam Turich (left) and Tami Dixon.

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