This afternoon, a circle of such friends sits together on Sycamore Island, heads bowed in concentration over their texts. The Potomac River rings the island gently, then drifts serenely by. A deep baritone voice floats up from the group:
sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”
It is the annual gathering of The Playreaders at Sycamore Island, hosted by Norman and Nancy Metzger – a much-anticipated retreat. This particular afternoon, we are reading, appropriately enough, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play about a group stranded on an island through the intervention of the mage Prospero. (It is the monster Caliban who so poetically describes his island home.) Although we hardly feel stranded, we do feel that Sycamore Island exerts influences not unlike those of Prospero’s island: a brief separation from the hurly-burly loop of life inside the Beltway, a respite that helps shift one’s perspective inward, a nourishing of friendships. Prospero’s mortals had to stumble and starve for several days for their rewards. For us, just arriving at Sycamore is the first reward – and then we get good friends, great literature, and a splendid picnic lunch. Indeed, this island “gives delight and hurt[s] not.”
Norman and Nancy, early members of our playreading group, have been hosting us annually on Sycamore for several years now. The group’s records, such as they are, are sketchy (whoever has the best memory) – but we recall coming to Sycamore for nearly ten years. That’s almost as long as we’ve been meeting as a group.
The Playreaders first met in 1990. The idea was the brainchild of charter member (founder, really) Sheldon Lippman. Sheldon and partner John Campbell organized and hosted the first gathering at their home, and provided the entrée for a group dinner. The rest of us brought side dishes, wine, dessert, and our own copies of the play for that first reading, The Importance of Being Earnest. That established the pattern we’ve pretty much stuck to for over the years. We have continued to meet six or seven times per year. We choose a play by consensus, self-volunteer to host the next gathering, and manage to find among these dozen lives full of family, work, and other pursuits, a free Friday evening or late Sunday afternoon to gather again in the coming weeks. The years have gone by, and the Playreaders gatherings seem to keep rising among our scheduling priorities.
A high point of every year is this annual trek to Sycamore Island. It is our only gathering al fresco and we try (but not too hard) to match our readings to the setting. The temptation is strong, though: trek a winding path through the woods, ring the bell for the ferryman, float across the river in a hand-pulled ferry, and arrive at this place, still and quiet, where the river drifts by, but each succeeding circle of life beyond – the bike path, the road, the Beltway – moves faster and faster until, as Robert Frost said, “we lose all measure of pace, and fixity in our joys.” It’s hard not to want to let this environment play on our imaginations. Besides The Tempest, we’ve turned to Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (no island setting but full of the follies of city-dwellers loosed in the forest one mischief-ridden summer night). We’ve also read The Admirable Crichton, by J.M. Barrie, (author of Peter Pan) , about a group of upper class Brits stranded on an island with their resourceful butler. We’ve also turned from plays on occasion to read our several favorite selections on a given theme. Our Sycamore themes have made the obligatory nod to Water, and “The Birds and The Bees.” (We’ve managed to resist “Geese.”) On one memorable occasion, we read materials about our home towns. Like most Washingtonians, our members are geographically diverse in their origins – from Indiana to India, Utah, Louisiana, Texas, England, the Bronx (via Germany), and just down the road in Maryland – so the readings produced a charming array of history, character sketches, geography, and personal memoir. Members brought essays, local news articles and histories, old family letters and photos, and their own selves, briefly revealed in that long-ago place. It was a lovely afternoon.