On the surface, you've got a timely play about imprisonment and tortureand a lesson about what it does to the torturer. Because, while the bulk of the play is about two men, Valdez and Wallace, imprisoned and tortured for reasons they do not know, the real dramatic action comes from their brutal guard (whom they call "Smash") and his frustration over the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can't stop seeing his victims as human. It's impossible to watch The Unseen without words like "Guantanamo" and "Abu Ghraib" coming to mind, and wondering if the "Unseen" of the title refers to our own failure to see that those we used "enhanced interrogation techniques" against are still people, and what seeing this fact would actually mean.
But that's just the surface. The "Unseen" of The Unseen can easily refer to half a dozen other concepts. There is much that Valdez and Wallace cannot see from their individual cells. Take something as simple as what the rest of the prison looks like. Wallace, the more intellectual of the two (he calls Valdez "Mr. Valdez," not out of deference, but in the way a professor speaks to his students), looks at the facts he knowsthe cell he has seen, the ever-present noises of the prison, and the few snippets of conversation he has heard when being torturedand infers that what he does not see must be more of the same of what he can see. Valdez, who is governed more by what he "feels" to be true, imagines that what he cannot see is beautifully different from what he can. And yet, neither Wallace's rational deductions nor Valdez's gut reactions are purethey're both poisoned by each man's desperate hope that the unseen will actually be what he needs it to be.
We're not talking about two guys in prison anymore. We're talking how people make assumptions about what they can't seewhether it's news from foreign lands, people we do not know, or a Supreme Being. Do we get the right answer by reasoning from what we know? Are some things incapable of rational proof and only knowable by faith? Or is the attempt to know always doomed to failure as we will always infect our conclusions about the unseen with what we want it to be?
Is the unseen even there? Valdez and Wallace are in two different cells. They think they're conversing with each other, keeping each other sane, speaking to someone they can trust. But does the other man even exist? Or is he just a construct in one man's headthought to be staving off lunacy but, in reality, a manifestation of it?
Even Smash, who is clearly an intellectual lightweight, finds himself in socratic dialogue with Wallace. Because for Smash, the breaking point is that his victims have eyes; the fact that he can see his victims' suffering in their eyes threatens to tear his universe apart. Can he, Smash wonders, eliminate his own sense of guilt if he can continue to commit gruesome acts unseen by his victims?
And there is also a beauty in the unseen. Valdez and Wallace spend time playing the "I went to the ocean and I brought ..." game, where each person adds to the list an item starting with the next letter of the alphabet. When the show begins, Wallace has just been returned to his cell from a torture session, and Valdez prompts him to run through the list where it standsthey're currently up to the letter "X." As Wallace runs through the A - W items, much is illuminated. (For one thing, it's very clear that Wallace has the better imagination and facility with language. For every straightforward "Apple" that Valdez put on the list, Wallace added a graceful "Beam of light.") But the 23 items rattled off illustrate, with an elegant simplicity, how very much is unseen by men incarcerated for so many yearshow much a man with only a bucket, a spoon, a cup and a bowl can grow to desire a juicy red apple; or how much a man deprived of the sun for nearly a decade can cherish the thought of a beam of natural light shining through a window. There are detailed descriptions for some items in the list, and we can easily imagine how the men must have painted visual memories for each other while playing this game, and how they hunger for the things that have remained unseen by them for so long. It's brilliant writing, and it very nearly sums up the toll of nine years of imprisonment in a 23 item list.
There's exceptional acting all around by the three-person cast. Darin Singleton is a splendid Wallace, whose substantial physical pain can be no match for his mental suffering. Matt Kirkwood hits all the right notes as the gentle, still optimistic Valdez. And while Douglas Dickerman at first seems a little too loud as the over-angry Smash, the contrast ultimately makes his late-play soft-spoken monologue absolutely can't-look-away captivating.
It must be pointed out that, with all of these snippets of gorgeous dialogue and philosophical issues, the play is missing something in the way of dramatic tension. Valdez and Wallace have been at the prison for so long that their torture has become routinethey're not even questioned anymore. There's no chance things will ever change; no issue of trying to keep information from their interrogator; no real plot to engage the audience. If it weren't for the disconcerting prison buzzers (nicely done by sound designer David B. Marling), there would be nothing to keep the audience on edge during the proceedings. Playwright Wright makes his directorial debut with this production, and he does a fine job staging a verbal interaction between two men in separate rooms (with minimal props for them to play with)this can't be easy. The play itself earns high marks for provoking subsequent thought and discussion; if it were only a bit more engaging in the theatre itself, it could be a tremendous work.
The Unseen runs at the Road Theatre Company in North Hollywood through August 22, 2009. For tickets and information, see www.roadtheatre.org.
The Road Theatre Company presents The Unseen, written and directed by Craig Wright. Executive Producers Taylor Gilbert & Sam Anderson; Producer Deana Barone; Assistant Directors Scott Smith & Elizabeth Sampson; Scenic Design Desma Murphy; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design Elizabeth Brand; Sound Design David B. Marling; Prop Design Lila Waters; Scenic Painter Colette Miller; Stage Manager Maurie Gonzalez.