Couldn’t Say

“This week I had the privilege of seeing Couldn’t Say, a rare gem that is being presented at the Midtown International Theatre Festival … Written by Christopher Wall, a lyricist of the spoken word, Couldn’t Say is a gently powerful and moving piece.”
– Shelley Molad,

Couldn’t Say trumps much of what’s found in many larger, louder, and more frantic plays.” – Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway

“I was fortunate to have a front row seat to a special and beautiful ‘gem’ of a show … If you check out Couldn’t Say you will witness an intelligent, sensitive, funny new play performed by top notch actors. You won’t want to miss it.”
– Bixby Elliot, Yahoo! Broadway

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2 chairs. 1 tree branch. 1 grieving couple. Developed at Abingdon in New York City. Winner, Literary Prize, Washington Theatre Festival. Named Outstanding New Play by Talkin’ Broadway. World premiere at Charter Theater in Washington DC. Produced at MITF in New York.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a marriage on the edge? Ethan and Liz find out when they become stuck in a car one winter on a deserted highway. Forced to cooperate until help arrives, they confront the issues that have undermined their marriage: his long hours at work, her history of depression, their emotional and physical estrangement, and the recent death of their son and who, ultimately, is to blame for it. At times droll, at times savage, Couldn’t Say shows two characters in a battle for their lives, trying to survive until help arrives.

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(The beginning of the play.)

(Deserted highway. Northern New Hampshire. Winter. Night. Ethan in the driver’s seat. Liz beside him. Both staring out. A fraught silence. Finally, she sighs. He looks at her.)

ETHAN. Where’s your hat?

LIZ. Hmm?

ETHAN. Your hat. You were wearing it yesterday.

LIZ. Oh … Oh dear. I took it off when we returned from our hike. You should’ve seen it. Snowy. Ice-caked. I couldn’t stand the thought of it melting all over the kitchen so I hung it on a bush outside.

ETHAN. You’re kidding.

LIZ. I didn’t want to mess up Jay’s place —

ETHAN. It’s snow. It turns to water.

LIZ. I don’t know him –

ETHAN. He wouldn’t mind.

LIZ. Borrowing his place for the weekend, I just … What?

ETHAN. The amount of worry that goes into hanging a hat! His house is by a ski resort. He’s used to snow. You can’t ruin anything.

LIZ. I realize now.


ETHAN. You didn’t see it this morning on the way to the car?

LIZ. Well — I did, actually. You were packed. Ready to go. I rushed out with the trash. And there it was. Soaked. I didn’t know what to do.

ETHAN. So you threw it out?

LIZ. Yes.

ETHAN. ’cause it was wet!?

LIZ. Yes. (Beat.) Are you mad?

ETHAN. It’s just – If we’re going to sit here — If someone doesn’t come soon, you’re going to need it.

LIZ. I’m fine.

ETHAN. You sure?

(He takes off his hat and offers it.)

Come on. You know me. Always hot. I’ll end up in my underwear before the night’s through.

(She doesn’t take it. He puts it on his lap.)

LIZ. Warn me next time you break down. I’ll bring a spare.

ETHAN. Warn me next time I give you clothing. It’ll end up in the bushes.

(They chuckle. It dies out. An awkward silence.)

Did you … enjoy the weekend?

LIZ. Oh god yes.

ETHAN. I was hoping —

LIZ. Am I that hard to read?

ETHAN. When I convinced you to leave —

LIZ. Packing our sheets, that ratty afghan, to make it feel like home? You scheduled activities in five minute increments.

ETHAN. Seven.

LIZ. The snowball fight was scheduled too. Wasn’t it?

ETHAN. That was spontaneous.

LIZ. Ha!

ETHAN. I can be spontaneous.

LIZ. Fess up. I saw your list. “Make dinner. Make fire. Make snowball.”

ETHAN. I was jotting down ideas. Things we could do together to stop thinking of home. It worked. I watched you sleep. Two nights in a row. First time, really, since …

LIZ. Since the accident.

ETHAN. Yes. (Sigh.) You don’t know how much I needed to hear that. We’ll continue this vacation into next week. A life of perpetual weekends. What do you think? (Beat.) Now all we need is some help.

LIZ. We’re fine. Any minute now.

ETHAN. You sure?

LIZ. Something always happens.

(They wait. She fidgets, looks out the back.)

Where are all the fat men in pickup trucks? The state’s full of them. Bearded. No mustache. Always eager to help the stranded.

ETHAN. You’re holding up well.

(She giggles.)

LIZ. Yeah. This is epic. I got a seat. A view. I was made for non-aerobic suffering.


ETHAN. Do you — have plans when we get back?

LIZ. No.

ETHAN. I wondered, since our son — since he —

LIZ. Died.


LIZ. You still can’t say it.

ETHAN. Sometimes. I have trouble sometimes.

LIZ. It’s been almost six months.

ETHAN. I’m getting better. (Pause.) This weekend’s a good sign. Leaving the house is a good sign. Maybe you should consider going back to work.

(She protests.)

It’s been a few years, I know –

LIZ. I have trouble keeping a hat on my head.

ETHAN. It helped me, that’s all. The week after. To return to class. Colleagues. Students. Prodding me on. Taking me to lunch. Reminding me to order. Reminding me to pick up my fork and — and eat. I don’t know what I would’ve done without them. I’d still be in the faculty dining hall, pasta cold, napkin gone, head in hand, just — staring. (Pause.) The semester starts next week. I won’t be home as much. I won’t be able to watch you.

LIZ. Maybe next fall.

ETHAN. Next fall!?

LIZ. Let me think about it.

ETHAN. Good. Thinking about it is good.

(He wrings his hat, taps his foot, looks around.)

Ran into Hardy the other day. Your old principal.

LIZ. How’s he?

ETHAN. Misses you. Says hi. I mentioned you finished your Continuing Ed credits. Renewed your license. Just last year. You were thinking – There’s no harm in that. – You were thinking you’d have the option, if the opportunity arose, to return to the classroom.

LIZ. Ethan —

ETHAN. I told him not to get his hopes up. You weren’t planning a resurgence yet. But still. You should’ve seen him. Eyes alight. Mouth open. At a loss for words for the first time in years! (Pause.) You were a marvelous teacher.

LIZ. I was?

ETHAN. How can you wonder? They loved you. Everyone loved you.

LIZ. Really? (Pause.) I’ll think about it.

ETHAN. Good. That’s good.


LIZ. Anything else?


LIZ. Chance encounters? Meetings on the sidewalk?

ETHAN. Nope. (Pause.) Though I did see Jean.

LIZ. You’ve been social.

ETHAN. Yeah. Amazing who you run into when you leave the house. (Beat.) She’s still teaching sixth grade. Has an illness in the family. Her mother. Always made fun of her. Avoided her for years. And now she’s going down to the Cape to take care of her, which means — Ha! — there might be divine punishment even though there isn’t a god. Which is funny, when you think about it. (Pause.) So Hardy’s looking for someone to finish the
year —

LIZ. Ethan!

ETHAN. What? You’d be great. Kids love a sub.

LIZ. I’m not prepared.

ETHAN. I’ll help you.

LIZ. They changed standards.

ETHAN. They always change standards.

LIZ. I never taught sixth grade.

ETHAN. They’ve never been in sixth grade. They won’t know the difference.

(Pause. A wry smile.)

LIZ. That would kill a large part of the day.

ETHAN. See. You’re excited already.

(Silence. She shifts uncomfortably in her seat.)

LIZ. I just … never got used to the impression you make as a teacher. Kids come up. Years later. Say I was the most important thing in their life that year, and my god, all I did was show up! Can you imagine someone tapping you on the shoulder? While you’re in line? With groceries? Reminding you of where you were and what it meant to be you? (Pause.) When I stopped teaching I thought, “I’ll just take a break. There’s so much to do around the house.” Then, you know, I brought the recycling to the curb. Saw Norm lumber by. I hadn’t seen him in months. I waved. Said hello. I’d been meaning to call him … I looked up and Norm was already down the street. He hadn’t heard me at all. I was standing there, mumbling to the curb, thinking we were having this conversation. I was so ashamed! I never used to mumble. I used to say things. People used to listen. Didn’t they? I ran to the house. Locked the door. I can’t take out the recycling again. Norm might walk by. I’ll just take a break. There’s so much to do around the house. Then I realized I’d said the same thing the day I stopped teaching and … so many other things.

ETHAN. You never told me.

LIZ. No?

ETHAN. Norm likes you. Maybe he didn’t hear you. Maybe you weren’t mumbling.

LIZ. You think? (Beat.) Oh, it … it doesn’t matter now.

(She eyes him, suppresses a smile.)

You’re in cahoots with Hardy. Aren’t you? Planned this whole thing.

ETHAN. Absolutely.

LIZ. Pushed Jean’s mother down the stairs to free a classroom.

ETHAN. Absolutely.

LIZ. I knew it. Little schemer. (Pause.) I’ll talk to him. Maybe I can sub the rest of the year. Try it out.

ETHAN. You will?

LIZ. It’s been, what, five years? I’d – I’d like to matter to someone.

(He sighs, suddenly unburdened.)

ETHAN. I’ll find that inn. Call a tow truck. Then Hardy. Then Jay. Then go through the phone book. Wake everyone up.

(He yells out the window.)

Hey! Wake the hell up!

LIZ. Hush.

(He sings to “O What A Beautiful Morning.”)

ETHAN. “O What a Glorious Breakdown!”

LIZ. They’ll think you’re the crazy one.

ETHAN. You don’t know how concerned I was. Then this weekend, watching you sleep. Wondering if I could get through. Convince you to take this job. Any job. Anything that might help. I didn’t know if I could — if the two of us could still —

(He clears his throat, turns away, wipes his eyes.)

Who cares about that. We’re beyond that. We’re going to make it.

(He puts on his hat.)

LIZ. Where are you going?

ETHAN. Just … need some air.

(She grabs his arm.)

LIZ. We need to stay together.

ETHAN. Don’t worry.

LIZ. Worry? What am I supposed to do? Push my seat back and sing songs from Oklahoma? Then stumble out after you, clutching the guard rail —

ETHAN. Liz —

LIZ. But there won’t be any worry, except for the fidgeting and staring and waiting and singing and stumbling —


(She starts shaking his arm.)

LIZ. How could you!? After we saw what a car does to anyone stupid enough to wander off.

ETHAN. All right —

LIZ. Josh?

ETHAN. Liz —

LIZ. Talk to him, Josh, so he stops trying to leave!

ETHAN. My arm!

(She notices what she’s doing and lets go.)

LIZ. We’re just — not supposed to move. We’ve moved enough for one night.

ETHAN. I wasn’t trying to upset you. I was happy, that’s all. Didn’t mean anything by it.

(Silence. He rubs his arm, looks around.)

Wind’s picking up. Look at that tree. Limbs fussing. Spanking the snow. How useless, to rage against snow! (Pause.) We can’t be far from the inn. There was a sign back there. Whether you saw it or not. This is New Hampshire, not the outback. You can’t just leave. Can’t just be alone. God knows I’ve tried. (Pause.) Did you mention Josh just now? Were you talking to our son? I – I probably imagined it. I was busy trying to keep my arm attached to my body.

LIZ. I was, actually.

ETHAN. Is this the first time or —?

LIZ. No.

ETHAN. Oh. Oh god …

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