To open the recent Festival UnBound, Touchstone Theatre staged the play Prometheus/Redux at Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts from Oct. 4-6. Long term residents of Bethlehem will know that this production connects with the play Steelbound produced in 1999.
Touchstone Theatre created the 1999 production to give residents the opportunity to process the closing of Bethlehem Steel and to see a way forward by recalling the real strength of Bethlehem: its people. In the wake of the closure, many wondered how the community would survive the closing of the plant that so many families had depended upon for decades. As the community struggled to imagine a future without such an important employer, Touchstone hoped that theater could serve as a catalyst to imagine a future for the city and its residents.
Steelbound was based on a Greek tragedy called Prometheus Bound. The original production in 1999 featured Touchstone co-founder Bill George as the character Prometheus, reimagined as a steel worker who refused to accept the closing of the steel mill. He was depicted as a bound man, literally and figuratively welded by his own anger and remorse. Eventually, Prometheus broke his chains after community members, including other steel workers and youth, affirmed their friendships with him forged in the plant, but continuing into the future of a city without Steel.
Because the play involved community members as actors, it gave residents the opportunity to work through their own attachments to Bethlehem Steel. While steel worker Prometheus struggles to imagine life without the plant, so too, community members could connect with his story. When community actors called Prometheus to break his chains and come down from the Steel at the end of the play, so too audience members were invited to think about the power of the community to weather the storm together with hope for a future beyond Steel. With Steelbound, Touchstone Theatre worked to provide closure to the community following the trauma of Bethlehem Steel closing.
The sequel Prometheus/Redux revisits Prometheus’ story and reflects on what has happened to him over the 20 years since the closing of the Steel. By looking back and tracing the past, the community uses Prometheus’s actions and thoughts to move forward once again. Prometheus is played by Bill George, who was excited to return to this role.
“It’s an extraordinary experience, as an actor and theatre artist to get to reprise a part as powerful and meaningful as Prometheus,” George said.
The play begins with an unconscious, unnamed John Doe figure bound to a hospital bed with stage four liver disease rather than by steel chains as in Steelbound. Nurses surround and tend to him while discussing his medical situation. His doctor, Julia, comes to examine him, she recognizes the burn scars on his wrists and ankles and realizes the patient is her father Theodore Amirani, otherwise known as Prometheus. In his unconscious state, he has visions, images of poverty and homelessness following the fall of Bethlehem Steel but also of his family and community— finally ending with community pride and development. The music clashes in the background and increases in volume to represent the anxiety and agitation that Prometheus is undergoing in his mind.
After Prometheus awakens, he speaks with his daughter. She reminisces about her life without her father and how he remained more devoted to the steel than to his family, and the play enters into the question of the toxic side of masculinity. He has missed her graduating college and medical school, getting married, and having a child, which saddens him immensely. He justifies these missed milestones by speaking on behalf of the steel workers. He says, “We built America.” His connections to his past work continue to rule over his thoughts and his life.
Julia decides to donate part of her liver to her father demonstrating a new future where people are more important than things or idealistic slogans. She admits that he did build America but at a cost: the toxic chemicals from the steel mill contributed to his corroding liver. When this is revealed, Prometheus struggles with this fact. Ultimately, he concedes, agreeing that “the cost was high.” Although he is dejected for a moment, Julia reminds him that there are now opportunities to rebuild. She proposes that he comes to live with her family, so he can build a relationship with his granddaughter. His focus has finally shifted from the work of the past to the raising of the new generation.
Intertwined within Prometheus’ narrative is a short scene composed of the medical staff that seeks to alleviate fears of the future. The nursing assistant Nas starts the short with, “I heard this wise person say that if you want to make change, you need four things.” They go on to say that generating proximity, changing the narrative, doing the uncomfortable, and staying hopeful are the keys to making a difference in Bethlehem. This short sequence acts as a commentary for those who identify with Prometheus; although change is terrifying, diving into it headfirst and being active in that change can reap enormous benefits.
Staging the production in a hospital shows the shift of Bethlehem’s primary industry from steel to health care. Having this play as the opener to Touchstone Theatre’s Festival UnBound makes community members connect the changes that occurred in Bethlehem to their own lives. Prometheus/Redux urges community members to be more people-focused and active in the choices that govern the community’s future.
“Certainly Steelbound had a profound impact on thousands of people,” George said. “Prometheus/Redux is different; these are different times, but I was proud of what a powerful piece it was and the community of artists that came together to make it happen.” As with the 1999 production, Bill George and Touchstone Theatre are creating transformative art that helps residents imagine our future and reflect upon our past.