Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
What a relic. But what an impressive relic.xxxxxxx John Osborne’s ill-tempered 1956 drama Look Back in Anger is credited with provoking a wholesale overhaul of British theater, so its historical value may be reason enough to produce it 41 years later. Certainly this overheated “explosion of bad manners” now seems dated, perhaps even hopelessly so; the class distinctions it rages about were and are of a specific period, and of a specifically British flavor, so the play can have only limited resonance for Americans in the ’90s. Still, it’s undeniably passionate, and there’s sometimes a terrible acid-edged poetry in the language Osborne gives his anti-hero; you may loathe Jimmy Porter when you leave the theater, but you won’t be able to forget him.
Jimmy is an educated product of the working class who’s perceptive enough to know precisely how worst to wound his mouselike Sloane Ranger wife, Alison, childishly cruel enough to do it at every opportunity, and intellectually capricious enough to blame her for not putting up enough of a fight. He tells himselfand the audience is expected to believethat he loves her helplessly, and that her passivity, her unresponsiveness in the face of his emotional terrorism, is proof that she doesn’t love him back. (She does, of course, though Osborne never sufficiently explains why.) Jimmy torments Alison and himself with this notion until she finally leaves him, which may once have been surprising but now seems merely inevitable. After several unlikely plot permutations and a good many strenuously lyrical monologues that establish Jimmy as either a noble sufferer or a terminally narcissistic whiner, depending on your perspective, she returns, and they face an uncertain future together.
“Our youth is slipping away,” Jimmy laments early on, and his despair deepens when no one seems worried enough to answer. “Nobody thinks, nobody cares; no convictions, no beliefs, and no enthusiasm.” That’s his problem in a nutshell: He’s sensitive, Jimmy is, keenly aware of missed opportunities for everyday joy. The domestic peace that Alison longs for is anathema to him because it implies time spent not relishing life. There is perhaps a kind of revelatory mundane heroism in Jimmy’s outlook, but there is about him a tiresome, self-indulgent futility as well. Then again, perhaps we can’t understand, here and today, how limited his options are.
That Jimmy is somehow both heroic and repellent is a measure of Osborne’s skill at characterization; Richard Thompson, seductively charismatic and believably alienated, is up to the acting challenge, though he had occasional trouble with Jimmy’s longest and most ornate speeches. Alison, too, is more than one-dimensional; waifish and convincingly fragile, Kathryn Kelley nonetheless manages to communicate the passive-aggressive malice in her early refusal to react.
One of the chief pleasures of the Studio production (along with the Porters’ attic apartment, deliciously tatty right down to the hideous tea cozy and the filthy armchair that is Jimmy’s throne) is Stevie Ray Dallimore, heartbreakingly sweet as Cliff, Jimmy’s live-in business partner, who loves both of the combatants but can’t or won’t stand up for either. His eventual departure is one of the play’s real tragedies. Shannon Parks does polished work, too; she’s cool as a cucumber sandwich as Helena, the iceberg of an interloper who rather unconvincingly develops a conscience near the play’s end.
The play is overwritten, overly long, and overly sentimental about its central character, who of course is revealed upon further inquiry to have a good deal in common with his creator. Its primary weakness, though, is in the relationships. Helena is a cipher, her sudden crisis a patently obvious device used to further isolate Jimmy and engineer the play’s conclusion. Worse, Osborne never gives us reason to believe in the underlying need that keeps Alison with Jimmy when he’s at his most unpleasant and brings her back when she’s at her lowest. These are compelling characters, undoubtedly, but their relationships to one another are so unconvincingly drawn that their troubles aren’t especially moving.
There’s a different problem with Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel’s tenderhearted and lyrical tale about a blind woman who submits to a chancy sight-restoring operation and loses everythingor does she?in its aftermath.
It’s easy to care about the three characters, who tell the story in a series of interlocking monologues: Molly, who’s perfectly well adjusted and may have been better off left alone, her chronically unemployed but socially conscious husband Frank, who certainly loves her but also (consciously or not) sees her as another in a string of causes to be fought, and the talented but troubled surgeon Mr. Rice, who hopes to restore his reputation along with Molly’s vision. The chief complaint is that Friel takes too long to make his point: that one person’s reasonable ideas about what’s desirable can be another person’s undoing.
Still, Arena Stage has a luminous Molly in Jenny Bacon, who gives an exquisitely sensitive performance in a role that could become nauseatingly saccharine. She’s so centered, so poised when she’s not speaking, that at times she almost seems to be in some kind of trance, and when it’s Molly’s turn to take up the narrative thread, Bacon infuses Friel’s lilting prose with a quietly ecstatic quality that makes you want to weepnot so much for the misfortune that’s all too obviously coming to the title character of this story, but for sheer joy at the grace she brings to the telling.
Speaking or silent, Bacon employs a nuanced body languagehead slightly bowed, fingers restlessly tracing the contours of chair-arm, or stair-nosing, knees and toes turned inward, eyes just a little crossed, gaze not wandering but focused on some indeterminate thingthat makes plain what it is Molly stands to lose. She makes physically evident what Friel can only say: that this enviably happy woman has an understanding of the world that’s as rich as, if vastly different from, the standard. When that understanding begins to crumble under a barrage of new and often unreliable stimuli, the loss is real, palpable, and unutterably sad.
Friel gives Molly a kind of desperate trump card, though. Deprived of her blind world and overwhelmed by the realm of the sighted, she retreats into madness and lives defiantly thereas richly, perhaps, as she did before the operation. Whether this is tragedy or some kind of triumphant transfiguration is arguable; again, what’s extraordinary is not the piece but the performance, not the play but the character.
TJ Edwards makes an admirable Frank, feckless and devoted at once, quick to rejoice in good times but weak in the face of trouble, somehow never contemptible despite his flaws. Richard Bauer brings all his considerable repertoire of mannerism to Mr. Rice; affected diction might arguably be consonant with this vaguely pretentious but all too self-aware character, but Bauer per usual doesn’t know when to stop. He begins in measured enough fashion, but soon he’s biting words in half, loading them down with portentous emphasis, stressing odd syllables for no DIS-cernible reason, and very nearly making a sympathetic character insufferable. In one scene late in the play, his melodramatic delivery reaches its nadir in a series of quasi-operatic gasp-sobs that threatens to undo everything the other actors have achieved.
Arena’s set, by Linda Buchanan, is a pointedly spare and pointlessly contrived affair: Three plank platforms float above a field of boulders, begging immediate speculation about whether someone’s drawing a connection to Arena’s recent Dance of Death. (There’s no reason to, and the one reference to rocks in Molly isn’t enough to support the design conceit.) Three doors loom behind the playing area, and the two men use theirs; Molly’s, though, is not only unused but inaccessible, suspended high above her. It’s as though Buchanan and director Kyle Donnelly mean to close off the possibility of escape for Molly, which doesn’t make any sense. If any of these characters goes through a metaphorical door, she does.
Arena’s Molly Sweeney, then, is an alloyed triumph: One idea that won’t leave you transformed but will leave an impression, one eager young actor and one who can’t seem to break bad old habits, one incandescent performance in an unsympathetic production. Remarkable for what it is; regrettable for what it could have been.CP