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A black box sits inside the black box that is DCAC’s performance space, and inside that smaller box is a bed—suitably cramped quarters for Enda Walsh’s ferociously claustrophobic slugfest Bedbound.
Where Beckett isolated characters in trash cans and mounds of earth, letting them lob words into an uncomprehending void, Walsh restricts his battling father and daughter to a mattress and has them hurl diatribes at each other. The effect, in Dan Brick’s taut production for Solas Nua, is angrier and every bit as devastating. Loneliness has little to do with distance, and these two couldn’t be more alone.
Their stories come out in long, looping monologues that initially seem disconnected but eventually dovetail into a common narrative. Dad (Brian Hemmingsen) speaks of a life spent in pursuit of “satis-fuckin’-faction” in the furniture business. To hear him tell it, his rise from stockboy to salesman to store owner so consumed him that he has hesitated at nothing—not even murder—to achieve it. His marriage (he seems to have had sex with his wife only to provide an heir for the business) was strictly a convenience—a way of acquiring a hostess to provide “fields of cocktail sausages” for clients. And as he rants about employees who handle a wall unit “as if it were made out of clitoris” and of a night spent rimming a customer in a motel room to get a sale, he does seem less concerned with matters of the flesh than with matters of commerce.
His daughter (Linda Murray), felled by polio at an early age and thus a bitter disappointment to her father, has been all but destroyed by the death of the mother with whom she once spent long hours reading romantic fairy tales while Dad neglected them both. “Ten years we wait for the prince, and we get him,” she moans, remembering. But she persists in trying to connect with this man on whom she’s dependent, voicing the other characters in rants she’s heard often enough to memorize and urging her father to “speak it like it was” and bruise the air with his words.
Perhaps because Hemmingsen recently played Willy Loman, his salesman’s reveries sound just as lived-in as his torrents of profanity, which allows the character to remain vulnerable when he philosophizes (“What am I if I’m not words?”). It’s hard to say whether his daughter is doing him a kindness or a cruelty when she helps him remember the nightmarish life he’s lived, but, well…he’s made his bed, and now he has to lie in it.
Walsh, who along with his countryman Connor McPherson, has brought a distinctly menacing edge to contemporary Irish drama, is such a vivid writer that it comes as something of a shock to realize that his characters don’t always view their gift for gab as an asset. When daughter opines brightly that at least their chatter is filling the gaps, Dad demurs.
“It’s makin’ the gaps,” he groans in protest. “If we weren’t talking, there wouldn’t be gaps, there’d be quiet.”
Then he tries to chew off his tongue.
“I’m bleedin’,” he says. “Fuck. I’m still alive.”
If you head out to see Olney Theatre’s Hedda Gabler, it might be helpful to think of it as the cartoon version of that venerable Ibsen masterwork, immaculate in its graphics (towering 15-foot doors by James Kronzer, severely tailored suits and gowns by Howard Vincent Kurtz), but with performers telegraphing emotions so broadly they might as well have dialogue balloons floating above their heads.
Julie-Ann Elliott’s Hedda is a distinctly modern harpy—a desperate housewife rather than a bored one—tense and frantic from the moment she arrives onstage, all clenched fists and transparent motives. Her dim bulb of an academic husband (Christopher Lane in mouth-breathing dork mode) can’t satisfy her, so she’s fixed her sights on his academic rival, a momentarily sober alcoholic she flirted idly with as a girl. As played by Jeffries Thaiss, he’s a superannuated teenager—not much of a challenge for a manipulator like Hedda—but hey, a girl has to grab what life hands her. Enter Judge Brack, not quite twirling his moustache but leering suggestively enough in Michael Howell’s portrayal to suggest that he’s auditioning for town satyr.
All of this is decently lively in a summer-stockish way, so perhaps it’s intended—as the opener in Olney Theatre Center’s annual festival of political theater (produced in tandem with Potomac Theater Project)—as a salute to Olney’s origins on the straw-hat circuit. There are indications—walls papered with newsprint, a glassed-over lighting moat at the lip of the stage—that when An Enemy of the People shares this space next month as part of the company’s “Ibsen Experiment,” things will take a turn toward expressionism and perhaps even subtlety. Meanwhile, the brassy emotions Halo Wines’ staging elicits in Hedda Gabler turn Ibsen’s naturalistic character study into precisely the sort of outsized moral melodrama the playwright spent his career subverting.
A couple of castmembers resist the temptation to overdo. Anne Stone is merely fussy as Hedda’s pregnancy-obsessed aunt. And Maia DeSanti’s distress at being used as a pawn in Hedda’s schemes feels approximately lifelike—fragile and occasionally even understated in an evening that is otherwise as broad as a Norwegian winter is long.CP