Theater

Two Types of Mystery: NINE and The Long Road

Photo credit: Michael Brunk/nwlens.com.All rights reserved.
Photo credit: Michael Brunk/nwlens.com.
All rights reserved.

A fluorescent light flickers on. As it dangles from the ceiling, it illuminates a tiny, bare acting area. Two large sheets of wrinkled diffusion material separate the acting area from some dark mysterious background. Two actresses dressed in stark white prison garb each take up a heavy chain. They loop the chains around their necks without emotion then lock themselves into their collars with a padlock. Blackout.

So begins Arouet’s production of Jane Shepard’s NINE, directed by Paul Budraitis. Once the play opens, the audience has all the information that it is going to receive. What follows is forty minutes of a kind of macabre game in which each woman tries to retain her past by reciting proverbs for the other woman to complete. At the same time each woman tries to keep alive their memories of a world beyond the space in which they are brutally trapped by telling personal stories that no one else can possibly know.

The production is actually quite good, helped by Mr. Budraitis’s bold conception and spartan design. Jane Shepard’s script also is compact, elliptical even, and refuses to explain itself. In the end, the play is a bit too reducible: it is typically American in that it concentrates completely on individual psychology without much attempt to extrapolate a larger social meaning. Put it beside Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language or, more explicitly, Dea Loher’s Olgas Raum and you will see the difference quickly. Fortunately, Colleen Carey and Cynthia Geary show extraordinary devotion to the piece and its claustrophobic mood, going deftly from moment to moment with a relentless intensity that is just as strong as in the original film version of the play. Both give excellent performances, making the best of the play’s limits (limitations?) and preserving what’s most essential in the play–namely, its ruthlessness, its lack of explanation, its mystery.

Will it make me reconsider the state of political theater since 2001? Probably not. But it’s direct, immediate and emotional without being trite or maudlin, and in a city that fears direct display of emotion, I find it a breath of fresh air and a reminder that all is not yet lost.

Photo credit: Michael Brunk/nwlens.com.All rights reserved.
Photo credit: Michael Brunk/nwlens.com.
All rights reserved.

The Long Road deals with another kind of mystery, namely the fact of death and how one comes to terms with death–violent death in this case. Writer Shelagh Stephenson devised this piece after a long residency working with prison inmates and that experience here is translated into the story of a family who lose their youngest boy in a random street murder. As each of the three family members grieve in their own way, the play explores how different people attempt to come to some sort of acceptance of death, even if they never fully understand.

I’ve always loved Shelagh Stephenson’s writing and her gifted ear that finds poetry in simple dialogue. But there’s something nagging about this piece. It has the structure of one of Ms. Stephenson’s radio plays, alternating long interior monologues with conversation. This works really well when people are speaking, and particularly in the sections where dialogue overlaps like musical parts in a string quartet. It’s less effective from the point of view of the stage pictures, which are almost static enough to be sterile. They create an oppressive mood in which people seem frozen, isolated within their own thoughts.

I do not mind this as a basic concept. It shows at least that director Zandi Carlson has thought about the piece, and that immediately lifts it above three-quarters of the productions in Seattle. But the transitions from interior monologue to character interactions strikes me as jagged. The sound and lights as they are strike me as insufficient to the task of clearly delineating the levels of reality, and I suspect that in the Eclectic Theater space they would be problematic under even the best of circumstances. As a radio piece, this problem would vanish, but obviously this is not a radio piece–or is it?

Too, there is something very bourgeois about the piece. While I’m certainly sensitive to the topic and I am very fond of emotional exploration, I find myself wanting more out of it than simply watching a middle-class family agonize over something that poor people experience as a daily reality. Part of the problem is that in crossing the Atlantic, the evocation of class structure through speech disappears. There is no American analogue for such a firmly Anglican meme. The other part of the problem is that the murderer, Emma, as a lower class denizen herself, serves only as something to change rather than someone from whom one can learn. The ending carries the patronizing overtone that if only we could “educate” these poor people everything would be one great big chorus singing a rousing rendition of Ding Dong Merrily On High. There is every sense that the bourgeoisie have everything to learn about mortality; there is zero sense that anyone from outside of their cozy lives can teach them. This is a vulgar message, and I know Ms. Stephenson can do better than this because she already has. I suspect the fact that the piece was originally co-produced with The Forgiveness Project is what makes it all just a bit too tidy.

The acting is largely fine. Jared Holloway-Thomas gives by far the best performance, and is obviously in his element here. Eleanor Moseley plays the mother, Mary, exactly as I picture the character: tough beneath her demure patina, deeply sensitive and deeply maddening, struggling with the idea that her middle-class inviolability could be broken so rudely. Abigail Grimstad and John Murray are both acceptably convincing, and of course it’s always a pleasure to see the delightful Kate Witt in anything.

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net