Sympathetic Magic Feature in The Saratogian

Bridge Street Theatre offers a neglected play by Lanford Wilson

By Bob Goepfert

PUBLISHED: November 9, 2023 at 11:00 a.m. | UPDATED: November 9, 2023 at 11:01 a.m.
Link to original article.

CATSKILL, N.Y. — Bridge Street Theatre, a professional theater company in Catskill, uses the term “forgotten masterpiece” to describe their production of Lanford Wilson’s “Sympathetic Magic.”

It plays through Nov. 19.

However, in a recent telephone interview, the director of “Sympathetic Magic,” John Sowle, a co-founder of Bridge Street, is reluctant to use the term to describe the work.

Instead, he talks about how personal the play is to him. “Right now, my hope is the audiences leave the theater caring about it as much as we do.” Being surprisingly straightforward, he adds, “You never know. Audiences might not like it.”

Soon you realize he speaks from personal experience. Sowle’s partner and fellow co-founder of the theater, Steven Patterson, loves the play. Sowle knew little about it. A couple of years ago they travelled to New York City to see an Off- Broadway production of the play, They both hated it.

Patterson, who has a supporting role in this production, didn’t want Sowle’s opinion of the work defined by a production he felt “didn’t understand the play.” Returning home he got out the script and implored Sowle to read it. Patterson describes Sowle’s reaction as one of tears, along with the comment, “I think we might have to schedule it for one of our seasons.”

Sowle recalled the moment saying he was turned off by the violence in the New York production. “It came from nowhere. It didn’t work for me,” he says. “After reading it I thought, so that’s what it’s about.”

Indeed, he was amazed at how much he identified with one of the themes in the play. Summing it up, he describes it as asking, “What is the Universe and how does it affect our lives?”

He certainly related to the central character Ian, who Sowle describes as “charismatic and volatile.” He is a brilliant young astronomer who, with a co-worker, makes a discovery that can alter centuries of thinking about the universe. This discovery, says Sowle, is how the playwright makes a connection between the mysteries of the universe and the erratic nature of humans. Each have their own dark holes.

Sowle graduated as valedictorian from Stillwater High School in Oklahoma and went on to MIT where he earned a BA in Mathematics. He says his initial goal was to become an astrophysicist. He jokes, “That was until I met one.”

Realizing that a life of pure science was not for him he switched gears and earned a PhD in Theatre at the University of Berkley, California.

Of the choice, he says, “It was a matter of exploring who I was. I chose the path which was dictated by my heart.”

With this background in mind, it is easy to trust Sowle’s opinion of “Sympathetic Magic” as “cerebral, but entertaining.” The cast is filled with accomplished intelligent individuals – each of whom, in some way, is conflicted.

They consist of the outspoken older and dying, Liz. She is an anthropologist who studied African tribes and is now trying to find similar traits of behavior in West Coast gangs. She is the mother of Barbara who lives with Ian. Barbara is a gifted sculptress who is about to launch a phenomenal career.

Liz’s son Don is a gay Episcopal minister who works with the poor. Don’s companion Pauly leads a church choir consisting of gay men afflicted with AIDS. The rest of supporting cast is Ian’s colleague Mickey who helps make the astrological discovery. Carl Conklin White is their boss and the heavy of the piece. He is played by Patterson.

Clearly, this is a complicated group of unique individuals. What Sowle finds remarkable is the characters are all relatable to all audiences. Sowle goes so far as saying that it will be nearly impossible for someone not to intimately connect to at least one character in the play.

“Sympathetic Magic” may or may not be a masterpiece. It is, without doubt, an opportunity to experience an intriguing work by a playwright who can legitimately be termed neglected.

For tickets and schedule information go to