A Body of Water and Entertaining Mr. Sloan
I've seen the fear and confusion of Alzheimer's disease from the outside, but watching the Guthrie Lab's well-acted and elegant premier of Lee Blessing's A Body of Water is like living inside the existential void of Alzheimer's, a world of blank gaps and shifting realities. It's a disconcerting, intriguing and frustrating piece of theater that pitches audiences out onto the street at play's end wondering what they've seen and what each of us would be without the context of memory.
Not that Body of Water is about Alzheimer's. Rather, to raise the disturbing question of human meaning in a life deprived of personal history, Blessing creates Moss and Avis, two personable, fifty-plus people, who wake up in an isolated, mountaintop home, not knowing who they are, where they are, or if they even know each other. At first they are bemused by their situation and guess at how they came to be there. They even indulge in a little unconventional flirtation, but when Wren enters and tells them that they are murderers who bludgeoned their 11-year-old daughter to death, the play darkens. Wren, a young woman, is their only contact with the outside world. Three times, she gives them different stories, and the final version yanks the audience into a Moss and Avis-like disorientation by forcing a re-evaluation of all that has gone before.
It's surreal-feeling stuff that conjures Samuel Beckett. But director Ethan McSweeny plays Body of Water as naturalistic theater, which accentuates the dislocation between a familiar-seeming reality and the terror of absent memory.
On Michael Vaughan Sims' spacious set of a simply furnished room, with immense views over a large body of water and floor-to-ceiling walls on three sides, Moss and Avis are two people with whom many audience members might identify; they are intelligent, educated and, as the play progresses, increasingly discomforted.
Edward Herrmann, an imposing figure of a man, plays Moss with affecting sympathy. Wren tells Moss that he was a judge, and Herrmann's Moss has the presence of a judge; yet he is also oddly docile. Moss even has brief flashes of a legal mind at work when he challenges Wren's murder story. True to being a man, Moss is also reluctant to admit that he doesn't have a clue as to what's going on.
It's a strong performance that's equally matched by Michael Learned's attractive Avis. Avis readily admits that her memory "went jogging and never came back." She has a nicely ironic sense of humor about their situation, at first. But when Wren tells her to come to the village with her, Avis has to trust this unknown young woman and leave the relative security of the room and even Moss, and Learned's body language nails her character's quiet panic.
To Michelle O'Neill falls the unsympathetic role of Wren, and she manages well with what Blessing's script gives her. Wren is harsh to the point of cruelty. She justifies telling Moss and Avis the story of being murderers to try and shock them out of their amnesia, but there's passive/aggressive fury hidden in her forcing them look at grisly morgue photos of a bludgeoned child. Even when she's being decent to Moss and Avis, Wren comes over as hard and resentful. I wanted to feel a glimmer of sympathy for the unending treadmill of this young woman's lot, but that was absent in this reading.
Time passes with seasons loosely defined by dropping leaves, a distant mountain range that is sometimes white with snow, sometimes hazy in bright summer light, and there's a dramatic storm with rainwater cascading past the windows. Mathew Reinert's subtle lighting suggests the turning of time and underlying shifts in mood. Michel Roth's background music is both lush and dissonant, reflecting Moss and Avis' humanity and the frightening vacuum of their lives.
Body of Water lasts 90 intermissionless minutes. The play flows well, with the dialogue often sharp and poetic, but at times I felt mounting frustration, feeling I was being messed about with just too much, which of course, must be how Moss and Avis feel. And that is clever, in retrospect.
A Body of Water June 11 - July 3, 2005. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees selected Saturdays and Sundays. $ 22 - $30.00. Guthrie Lab, 700, North First Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-377-2224. Toll Free (612) 44-STAGE or, www.guthrietheater.org.
Director John Clark Donahue draws out Entertaining Mr. Sloan's blacker-than-black humor with delicious, character-defining quirks, and he plumb's the play's politically incorrect and dark comedy with a dream cast.
Mr. Sloan is a physically beautiful but violent young man who murders his landlady's and his employer's father. They in turn, blackmail him into being their shared sexual pet. They are all bottom-feeders in Britain's class system, although Eddy, Mr. Sloan's employer and brother to landlady Kath, clings to a new and tenuous respectability. Kath harbors middle-class pretensions in her phrases and her taste for knick-knacks and garden gnomes, and Orton's wicked humor lies in the disparity between the often genteel-seeming dialogue and the play's casual brutality.
And that cast? In a return to acting after years of directing, Jungle Theater artistic director Bain Boehlke lives and breathes the role of Kath and Eddy's "Dada." Dada's all used up - bent-legged, stiff, half-blind and stubborn; he, alone, has a handle on bald truth. In a superb performance, versatile Sally Wingert from the Guthrie finds the ragged edge between Kath's lusty needs and her artifice. Also first-rate and from the Guthrie is Richard Iglewski's Eddy, a bald, overweight, bossy and ambitious man who is titillated beyond all resistance by a beautiful youth. As the amoral youth, Mr. Sloan, TV, Broadway and film actor Justin Kirk, looks the part. Crotch to the fore, he sprawls on Kath's furniture and manipulates, uses and offs people, without a second thought. I expected the character to pack a more pressing sense of incipient menace, but Kirk's interpretation of almost incidental violence, serves the play well enough.
The Midland English accents are not too bad and the production values, from Donahue's detailed set to C. Andrew Mayer's sound design, are splendid.
Entertaining Mr. Sloan June 17 - August 6, 2005. Tuesdays - Thursdays; Fridays and Saturdays 8:00p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.. $ 22 - $32.00. The Jungle Theater, 2951, Lyndale Avenue South, Minneapolis. Call 612-822-7063.