Lifestyle & Culture

The Life of Stuff

May 29, 2016


Object Lesson photo by Allie Dearie

Performance artist Geoff Sobelle evokes magic, and memories, with cardboard boxes in “The Object Lesson.” / Photos, including cover photo, by Allie Dearie.

“Bakersfield Mist” has been extended through June 19.

IT WAS RECYCLING DAY in my neighborhood, a day I generally enjoy to the fullest, ridding  myself (and my basement and guest room) of useless boxes and other stuff that can possibly be turned into useful stuff. And which I will doubtless buy back in its new, enhanced iteration. On top of that, yet one more charity was about to pick up all sorts of things I had no right holding onto.

Nonetheless, I remain surrounded, at least in the basement, by cardboard boxes containing questionable keepsakes. A pair of green McCoy pottery salt-and-peppers wrapped in a May 16, 2006, Washington Post. In the same box, a clutch of paperbacks that look halfway enticing and which I had forgotten about (of course). Eight monogrammed glass shrimp-cocktail dishes. How 1950s, and  . . . why?

But I felt so much better when I went to see The Object Lesson at Studio Theatre last week.

“It’s an installation,” the young usher told us as we filed in. “Before you take a seat, wander around a little and look in the boxes.”

The Object Lesson photo by Allie Dearie

Geoff Sobelle extracts his life from a bottomless cardboard box in “The Object Lesson,” playing through June 5 at Studio Theatre. / Photo by Allie Dearie.

Cardboard boxes! In front of us, all along the walls, and in places stacked to the ceiling! The audience seats were also (reinforced) cardboard boxes, each helpfully labeled SEAT in black marker.

Soon “physical theater artist” Geoff Sobelle was . . . what? Making a little library nook for himself from a rug plucked from a cardboard box, and a lamp (from another box) and an old rotary-dial telephone and a wingback chair (hidden by a very tall box).

In the typical Washington basement you can probably globe-hop with things held in basement boxes. Sobelle’s assortment was more generic, a desk lamp here, a pair of slippers there, a . . . traffic light!? But what he “constructed” from them ranged from the silly to the soulful to the supremely magical and unreal. (He seemed to destroy his whole house in a set piece that began with him pulling a few loose strings out of a box.)

I’m going back down to the basement now to see if Sobelle has inspired me to rummage through my past lives. No matter what I find, though, I know I won’t be able to chop a head of lettuce with the old ice skates that are tucked away in one of my boxes, especially not on a dinner table. Yes, he did that, and he involved audience members, such as the gentleman who had to hold the chandelier (Higher, Sobelle gestured) above the dinner table where Halley, a young woman from the audience the night I was there, waited for her salad (and was game enough to eat some of that ice-skated lettuce).

Sobelle has said that the germ of the idea for his piece was the late comedian George Carlin’s iconic monologue on “stuff,” the way a house is the place you buy to put all your stuff in, and how we move our stuff from place to place and buy bags and things so we can carry our stuff around with us.


Donna Migliaccio and Michael Russotto in “Bakersfield Mist,” playing at the Olney Theatre Center. / Photo by Nick Griner.

A sideways take on stuff is part of another current theater piece, “Bakersfield Mist,” playing through June 12, at the Olney Theatre Center in Olney, Maryland.

Whereas Sobelle dives deep into his clever mind for inspiration, the author of the Olney play, Stephen Sachs, went as far as the newsstand because “Bakersfield” is based on the true story of a woman buying a “Jackson Pollock” for a few dollars at a flea market.

I’m planning to see “Bakersfield Mist” this week so I can experience for myself the confrontation between the haughty art expert and the out-of-work bartender who keeps her Pollock in her trailer-park abode. One of the play’s themes is the answer to the question, What makes art, and people, truly authentic?

But it won’t do me any good, I’m afraid. In my basement are half a dozen works of art on paper—two watercolors, one of them quite large, a very large pencil drawing, a World War I-era poster, a couple of framed Daumier prints. No, the rather humid basement isn’t doing any of them any good.

But I know two things for sure: None of them is a lost Jackson Pollock drip painting, and the memories attached to them are indelible even if the art isn’t.

—Nancy McKeon

Nancy McKeon is managing editor of You can read about her here.

“The Object Lesson,” by Geoff Sobelle. Through June 5 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW, Washington, D.C. Tickets run $40 to $55. Visit or call 202-332-3300.

 Bakersfield Mist,” by Stephen Sachs. Through June 12 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, Maryland. Visit or call 301-924-3400. Tickers run from $35 to $65.

4 thoughts on “The Life of Stuff

  1. …In my basement are half a dozen works of art on paper—two watercolors, one of them quite large, a very large pencil drawing, a World War I-era poster, a couple of framed Daumier prints. No, the rather humid basement isn’t doing any of them any good….

    oh? so why am I drooling?

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Dunno, but you’re welcome to come over and rummage!

  2. Nancy Gold says:

    Stuff is the reason, I think, our generation still owns houses. We have our stuff, our parents’ stuff and our kids’ stuff. Entirely too much stuff, but how ruthless can you get in disposing of it? The saving thought is that someone else can enjoy it, and store it in their basement , garage or attic.

    1. Nancy McKeon says:

      Yes, I’m voting for Someone Else’s basement, garage or attic! I confess I’ve gotten off lightly: My sister has the attic marked by the earlier generation of five sisters and all the china, glassware and silver that entails!

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