How We May Know Him

by Ellen K. Graham
World Premiere
Paragon Theatre Company
Phoenix Theatre, Denver


Barbra Andrews
Christopher Bleau
Emily Paton Davies
Suzanne Favette
Laura Norman
Gina Wencel


Concept notes:

Nicola represents reason while Val represents chaos–two opposing theories for understanding the world and our place as humans in it. The struggle between these two perspectives provides the framework and focus for what could be a very complicated story. At the center of the play is Nicola’s journey from seeking to better her financial situation as a private contractor in a war zone to firmly establishing what she believes once she has returned home and her world is threatened by the chaos that Val stirs up. Each main character in the play, in her own way is seeking to rise above her perceived limitations. Val, born dirt poor, and hardly educated, has made herself into a charismatic guru who finds purpose in converting others to her folksy, self-fashioned religious fervor. As an attractive, well-educated young woman, Wren has always been “kept” and cared for, whether by parents or lovers. She has known little discomfort and little adventure in her life. As such, Wren is enthralled by the charismatic Val who seems to be from another world and who promises an existence of far deeper meaning that the “hum-drum” life Wren has thus far known. Simone, a local star of the small screen, seeks to transform the body and face she perceives as being eternally flawed in the vain hope of filling the constant emptiness inside of her. Nicola’s struggle, ultimately, is to establish and defend what she herself believes, without relying on anyone or anything outside of herself to spoon feed her the answers.

The character of Val is an important device in the show. Val is spooky, disgusting, fascinating, hypocritical and hilarious. It is hard to discern whether she is for real or some sort of other-worldly creature. My take is that Val is a real person from the remotest “sticks” you can imagine who had every adversity thrown at her very early in life. As such, Val created a vivid, visceral belief system that enabled her to transcend her bleak upbringing. Unflinching belief is a powerful thing that can suck others in. Val does something and says it’s a miracle and the strength (and sometimes menace) of her conviction makes others believe it is so.


The main theme of the play (chaos versus reason) is very classical. This is a play about a classical debate set in very modern times. As such, the setting should represent the iconic elements (or clichés) of modern suburbia. What are the key architectural details/features (or lack thereof) that immediately identify the repetitive, “beige,” bland character of this upper-middle class, gated community? Much like a Greek or Shakespearean play’s setting demands a general backdrop with recognizable features that symbolize the time and place (like Ionic columns or rough-hewn stone steps) we need to utilize the iconic features of our present day suburban landscape to create our backdrop.

The set should not be at all realistic. This play certainly lends itself to an abstract, symbolic approach. Every element of the set should have a purpose and we should definitely use simplicity as an aesthetic. It would be interesting to explore the use of a monochromatic color palette as the set evolves.

In breaking down the show, I have found it necessary that certain locations of the play be permanent fixtures of the set, while others should be temporary, as detailed below:

Permanent locations:

  • Simone’s house, interior (4 scenes)
  • Nicola and Wren’s house, interior (4 scenes)
  • Swimming pool (2 scenes)
  • Under Simone’s porch (2 scenes, needs to be connected to permanent interior somehow)

Temporary locations:

  • Meadow (1 scene, top of show)
  • Nursing home/psych ward (1 scene, top of show)
  • Front door of Wren & Nicola’s, exterior (1 scene, needs to be connected to permanent interior somehow)
  • TV studio (2 scenes)
  • On the street (2 scenes)
  • Classroom (1 scene)
  • Plastic Surgeon’s office (1 scene)
  • Makeup chair in the field (1 scene)

A note on the pool…I would, if at all possible, like to create the realistic effect of Val emerging from the pool completely soaked. Whether that means having an actual plunge pool onstage (the audience need not see it) or some other means, I am open. But it would really help establish the spooky, questioning of reality that Val evokes if we can achieve this effect.

Partly on the basis of the possible demands of some sort of pool on stage, I am really feeling that this play needs two main levels, with the pool “deck” being on the second level.

For the first on the street scene (Wren proselytizing), I would like to block one of the actors coming from the back of the house.

Lighting will be very important in helping to establish shifts in location. As detailed in the second scene on Nicola and Wren’s porch, we will utilize “complete darkness” as specified in the script. This play should appear very “moody” as far as lighting is concerned. I do want people to question what is real and what is not. We should not shy away from saturated colors on this one. The more sculpting with the use of shadow and highlight, the better. The play takes place in late spring or early summer and we should heed the setting of the play being in the “high plains American West.” Light in the daytime scenes (especially by the pool) will need the strong warmth like that of the light we get here in the Front Range.

I have purposely not wanted to get too attached yet to how the show should “sound” in order to leave room for the designer to explore this more fully. I am not feeling the need  for a lot of environmental effects apart from what is specifically called for in the dialogue (like the pebble hitting Wren’s kitchen window). In addition to preshow and intermission music, we will need music for the multiple scene changes. I am open as to whether we go with original music or contemporary music that helps establish the time and setting. Either way, I am very interested in exploring faith, belief and human beings seeking transcendence through the sound design.

Costumes will be very important in helping establishing each character and what they represent. Color and texture should be specifically differentiated for each of the four main women and should give clear, specific clues about their social class and past life. We will need to determine some specific, identifiable elements (perhaps even clichés, like the set) for each character that each chorus actor plays that quickly tells the audience who/what each character is and does. Identity and how we establish or change it is very important in this play and the costumes must be meticulously chosen—everything has a purpose and meaning.

The hand props for this show will need to be perfectly synchronized with the set, especially if we establish a special convention (say, in color or style) with the set. I have not determined yet whether the cooking in the second scene should be real or not. My first instinct is that it should not be, but I need to explore the ramifications of that choice a bit more before we make the final decision on that.

How We May Know Him is seamlessly riveting, and I’m sure one of the reasons for this is that playwright Graham was able to work so closely with Paragon’s actors and with director Wendy Franz. On every level, her play and this production affirm the power and possibility of going local.

Juliet Wittman


Graham’s metaphysical examination of the female psyche pits Chaos, Reason, Innocence and Disillusionment against each other in a dramatic arc derived from the New Testament…Paton Davies’ Val is chilling in her relentless, flat-line determinism…Andrews hits all the right notes in characterizing the innocent element of the female psyche…Favette brings a fierce, calculating edge to Nicola….

Bob Bows