Murky Instructions for Breathing
Also see Bob's review of Sheila's Day
Instructions for Breathing presents us with a situation that is painful and difficult to experience. It neither engages us in its oddly drawn characters nor increases our knowledge, understanding or awareness of the human condition. Furthermore, it is an indigestible mixture of realism and failed poetics.
Sara and Jon, an average suburban-like couple, leave their seven year-old daughter Sonya tucked in bed asleep in order to attend a party at a house "a few minutes away." When they return, Sonya is gone without a trace or clue. The world of Sara and Jon falls apart. Their friends and neighbors seem to try to be helpful. However, Sara and Jon's overly sensitive (and, in Jon's case, psychotically violent) response to them, along with their inability to function, loses both their friends and jobs as each retreats into his or her self.
There is a surreal overlay to the proceedings. Most of the play is performed on a center-stage, abstract, off-white set within which there are several identical pieces of white modular furniture. By turning any piece 90 degrees, each becomes either a table or a chair. The pieces also become a sofa and a park bench. There are abstract representations of paintings and wall hangings. A square hole in the rear wall appears to be a window, even when the setting is outdoors. Stage left, there is a sparse, narrow realistic set with a wooden desk, chair and rear wall. In time, it will be revealed that this is Sonya's room at home. But it may be something more. At intervals, a young girl's voice (presumably Sonya's) is heard describing a room in a remote, rural Mediterranean appearing area. The words seem to be from a story that Sonya has written, but the eerie, echoic voice of the reader suggests that this room may also represent where Sonya has gone.
On Sonya's birthday, thirty-four months after her disappearance, Sara tells Jon that she "sees her in a remote, rustic, romantic place." Jon tells her that he also sees Sonya "there." One of their friends mysteriously muses to himself, "I saw her. I saw Sonya that night. I looked at the house, and it seemed that Sonya was bathed in light, dancing in the room with a parasol." Much later, we see Sara and Jon on a beach in Gibraltar. They have been "floating from place to place," "eking out (their) survival", and Sara would like to stay there. She wants to have another baby, but Jon says "no replacement." More years pass, and Sara returns alone to their old neighborhood. She encounters a wandering, homeless girl in late adolescence whose strange, enigmatic story and actions tantalizingly suggest that she could possibly be Sonya. We see Jon in Sonya's room. The Girl remains downstage center twirling the open parasol. Jon is hearing Sonya's echoic recurring words to which is added, "... just follow me, its just like breathing."
The closest interpretation to sense that I can draw from the whole shebang is that Sara and Jon increasingly retreat into an irrational, dream-like state, building a fantasy from the creative writing of their daughter. Author Caridad Svich is striving for intriguing ambiguity. However, Svich never comes close. Stated politely, I found all of this a pile of mumbo-jumbo.
Svich's dialogue is often odd and stilted. When friends speak to them in an artificial, strange manner (you do not want to hear a friend's incomprehensible account of the Greek myth of Ion, son of Apollo, being abandoned in a cave by his mother Creusa, then being happily reunited with her years later), one begins to wonder if much of what Sara and Jon hear is accurate. Svich is not helped by inept direction of Daniella Topol. The short, seemingly endless 70-minute production is extended by the constantly recurring arrangement of that modular furniture by the actors. However, our patience runs out when Sara takes several minutes arranging about five of the pieces to build a needless easy chair. Topol's staging is smug and self-congratulatory. "Aren't I so clever?," this bit rhetorically asks, and one wants to shout back, "NO." Early on, I found myself concentrating on the non-abstract wood-walled room, wondering what it was going to represent. For a long time, I was distracted by a narrow, rectangular, open-topped box which was affixed to the front of the stage and appeared to hold an umbrella. I guessed that it would be held during a funeral scene. Oh, well, it turned out to be that mysterious parasol. There is nothing in her direction or the performances of her cast to clarify the murky script.
Heidi Schreck realistically portrays Sara as a bereft young mother drawing away from reality. Bryan Close is unable to generate any sympathy for the bullying, violent Jon. If the author wanted to show that there are behaviors that are unacceptable even for those who have suffered monumental loss, she has succeeded in that. However, there is a lack of clarity as to whether that is her intent. As to the friends, Gerardo Rodriguez is a likeable Don, Frank Harts fails to cast any light on the oddly and inconsistently written Frank, and Polly Lee brings a bit of life to the proceedings as the aquisitive Leslie. Kate Hopkins is morose and unappealing as "The Girl."
Instructions for Breathing adds insult to injury by ladling pretentious and vacuous metaphysical poetics onto its depressing premise.
Instructions for Breathing continues performances (Evenings: Thursdays-Saturdays 8 p.m. / Mats.: Sat. 2 p.m.; Sundays 3 p.m.) through May 10, 2009 at the Passage Theatre Company, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery Streets, Trenton 08605. Box Office: 609-392-0766; online: www.PassageTheatre.org.
Instructions for Breathing by Caridad Svich; directed by Daniella Topol