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And I And Silence

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Two teenage girls—one black, one white—meet while serving time in prison and immediately become one another's kindred soulmate in Naomi Wallace's intimate yet expansive And I And Silence, the first of three productions of the up-and-coming playwright's works to be performed at the Signature Theatre Company this season.

The expansiveness is derived from the depiction of the cruel world into which the girls are thrust, one that is rife with racism, poverty, and abuse. The intimacy stems from the deeply entwined relationship of friendship, love, and interdependence that develops between them as their only defense against such a world. The dual vision that the playwright brings to the table is both intellectually provocative and emotionally charged, like one of Picasso's cubist paintings depicting a single subject from multiple perspectives at the same time. Yet whether the resulting whole makes for a fully satisfying theatrical experience is subject to its striking just the right balance between provocation and emotion.

The 90-minute play and this production bring many strengths to the unfolding of the tale, the smartest of which is the portrayal of the protagonists—Jamie and Dee—by two pairs of actresses. Their 17-year-old selves are played by Trae Harris (as Jamie) and Emily Skeggs (as Dee), while Rachel Nicks and Samantha Soule enact the pair nine years later, after they have been released from prison. The play ebbs and flows between the years 1950 and 1959, and the two sets of performers often cross each other's paths or appear on stage simultaneously. Rachel Hauck's set design supports this image of duality through its use of a confined space as both a prison cell and the sparse room the two share in their post-prison lives, coupled with a surrounding walkway that puts the audience at a distance from the action.

The performances themselves, under Caitlin McLeod's direction, effectively serve the play's emotional side, and the connections between the younger pair and their older selves ring true. Ms. Skeggs, in particular, is quite effective as the younger Dee, full of irrepressible optimism as she and Jamie contemplate and prepare for their imagined future lives. Watching her, we can't help but feel optimistic ourselves about their chances.

But Ms. Wallace has so stacked the deck against the duo that the play can't help but veer into the realm of a social justice polemic. With some adjustments, it could just as easily be set during the Great Depression or in apartheid South Africa (I did see a resemblance to Athol Fugard's Blood Knot) or in the troubled Middle East, with one character Arab and the other Israeli. In order for an audience to fully invest in Jamie and Dee, these young women need to be seen as unique and authentic rather than as representative stand-ins for victims of inhumane treatment. There is no question that Ms. Wallace is a skillful playwright, but we'll have to wait for the upcoming productions of her The Liquid Plain and an as-yet untitled new work to judge where her strengths lie along the continuum between character development and issue-oriented writing.

And I And Silence
Through September 14
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
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