A Cuban servant of a South Florida seaside estate led Joe Wagner to what the Cuban called the conversation pit, which turned out to be a chaos of redecoration. Joe was a gaunt, shambling, restless man in his fifties dressed in bluejeans, tennis shoes, and a bright Hawaiian shirt, with lank shoulder-length brown hair streaked with gray. The Cuban left him. Three seating tiers formed a rainbow semicircle of bright cottons like a tiny, upholstered Greek theater about 30 feet across. At what must have been the pit level, studs and sheetrock were shaping up into a small, slanted stage and proscenium. Behind that, absent masons had been deconstructing a fireplace. Bits of flagstone, lumber, sheet rock, sawdust, broken glass, and lime dust sprinkled the padded tiers. Light poured down in broad patches from windows in the cathedral ceiling partly draped in drop cloths. He shuffled down the tiers, stepped up on a part of the stage finished to plywood. He turned to face the bare rear walls, knelt, and declaimed sonorously:
"Gods, protectors of suppliants," he spread his arms, "look with favor on the helpless."
He paused, rose to a crouch, turned his head to one side, half cupped his hand over his mouth, and whispered conspiratorially, as if telling the gods a secret they needed to keep to themselves:
"Hey, listen, protectors of suppliants, some of us need help."
Then he stood up, let his hands fall to his sides, faced blankly forward, sighed, and repeated in an ironic monotone as if to illustrate how often these words had been spoken in vain:
"Gods, protectors of suppliants, gaze yet again on the helpless."
He jumped back to the tiers and sat down, at first with his elbows on his knees and his head down, his hair raw below his knees, but, on hearing a sound from back stage, he twisted up smoothly into a relaxed, assured pose, back against the edge of the tier above, smiling at the stage.
A tall, athletic, almost stringy, woman entered from stage left and seated herself in a patch of light astride a saw horse. She looked in her early 40's wearing a fashionable, blindingly white tennis outfit. Her medium-length wavy brown hair was sun bleached in places so as to be lighter than her tanned skin.
"What was that you just were speaking?" she asked with warm curiosity.
"It's the first line of the first Greek tragedy." Registering her face, he added like a kindly lecturer, "You could call it the first line in the theater."
"Listen, I shouldn't ask this, but could you come up here? I mean I can't see your face in the shadow there."
He rose with wiry grace and walked to the pit area where he seated himself on part of the construction, half a level below her.
"I'm Johanna Worth." She held out her hand, which he reached up and shook firmly. "I asked Tom to ask you to come. I've never seen one of your productions, but I've heard about your work. I've heard you cut to the quick; I've heard you cut the bullshit."
He thanked her and introduced himself.
"You know why I want you?" she continued.
"I understood you want our group to perform for your children."
"And I want you to live here."
"Yes, I understand that."
"But do you know why?"
"Because you want us to replace television?"
"Yes, that's just what I mean."
"It's a prison. The walls of the screen are as hard any prison walls. It's a sad, violent prison that locks you away from the whole world, from everything that's real, that you can touch, that you can care about as a person." he said.
"We've already broken all the sets. There are two of them, Tanya and Lizzy. We had a five-set house. We broke the screens with hammers, right here, you can still see the glass," she gestured to shards glittering under the half-completed stage, "and carried them to the dumpster. Did you know that?"
The first little drama in this little theater, he thought to himself. "Did Tom Worth hammer too?" Joe asked, knowing her husband was an officer of a major cable TV company.
"Listen, you bet he did. Do you know why? Don't you understand?" Johanna Worth said, "It's the most important thing in the world. Who do you model your life on?"
"Whom?" he responded, discomposed.
"I mean James Joyce modeled his life on Dante, and Thomas Mann modeled his life on Goethe. Who do you model you life on?"
He had not expected to hear names like that in a mansion in Fort Lauderdale. "Prometheus," he said.
She leaned her athletic body forward and made gestures in the air, half grasping, half like those of a conductor and said, "It's the most important thing in the world!"
"For me the theater is prison, a fascinating prison from which I help the audience escape," he said.
"Have you ever been in prison?" I want to know because I feel as if I should have been. Do you understand?"
"As you must know, we were touring in Europe. We played in Sarajevo during the siege. We were playing an improvisation based on The Trojan Women".
"That's an anti-war play, right?" she interrupted.
"Yeah; we did The Pits in Newcastle too."
"Did they have TV's in Sarajevo?"
"There is mind-numbing propaganda from the Serbian and Croatian stations, and somehow in there was CNN or something in the bar of the hotel—so the reporters could watch the exciting lint of their own navels."
"God it must have been awful. I wish I'd gone there. I could have gone there, but there was something here that was so important I had to stay. But I still want to know—have you been in prison?
"I was in prison just a few months ago during our tour in Mexico, in Guadalajara, where the doors swung shut like the bronze gates of Rodin. The Mexican authorities do not smile on public nudity."
"They're so fucking creepy. I know them. How many people in your company?"
"Now—four, my companion, myself, and two others. I had to 'down-size' after the European tour lost money. I've been in touch with a former member who teaches at the University of Miami. He said he could give a couple of students credit for helping."
"This is what I want: they've already gotten restless; they enjoyed the smashing, but they find excuses to go to friends' houses. I want you to entrance them so that they're glad they live here and not somewhere else. I think you can do that because I've heard you cut to the gut. Is that right?"
"In the theater my first gesture immediately indicates that I want you to take everything. I not only want to give, I want you to become excited and grab. We will be a unit made of the pleasure of giving and taking."
"You're tired," she said. “I know what it feels like. I can see it in your eyes."
“Yes," he admitted.
"That's brave of you," she praised him, then glanced at her watch. "Listen, I know this is stupid, but I have a match in 15 minutes. Can you do it, tired or not?"
"How much? There is a house on the property you could live in."
He named a figure for three months.
"OK, I'll have Bernardo take you to talk with the girls. If I think they think you're OK, it's a deal."