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A man and a woman trade memories lyrical and appalling, growing more disconsolate as their isolation—or are they in the same room?—becomes more absolute, and in the minuscule black-box space that contains The Small Things, a sense of immense distance somehow yawns. Across the river, meanwhile, in another suffocating room, four nameless people anchor the compass points, approaching one another and never connecting, wanting and left wanting until Crave becomes the cry of nations. Uplifting this past weekend of one-acts at Solas Nua and Signature wasn’t, not with Enda Walsh and Sarah Kane on the playbill—but, oh, the beauty these two playwrights can spin out of painful stuff.
Walsh, you’ll remember, is the brutal, tender bastard the Solas Nua troops introduced to Washington with plays like Disco Pigs and Bedbound, those clangorous chronicles of a poverty-poisoned Cork; he’s quieter here and working in other territories, but the territories are equally disorienting and the work no less wondrously strange. Two aging people, Man (Chris Davenport) and Woman (Kate Debelack), reflect in idiosyncratic dialect on a shared childhood anchored in the mundane and the surreal—chips and brown sauce, yes, bake sales and municipal swimming pools, but fanatics, too, and a grim campaign to impose an orderly silence on a noisy, complex world. Much more detail about how grim and how silent the children’s village becomes—how cruelly and irrevocably silenced—would sap The Small Things of some of its creeping ghastliness, so suffice it to say that Walsh’s hallucinatory offstage civil war might be playing out not far removed from the one in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away—and that as in Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language, the act of speaking and the fact of language are powerful enough to inspire extreme measures.
The language in question, apparently, is the dialect of one particular Lancashire valley region, to which Walsh reportedly repaired for a project pegged to an exploration of how English, in all its variants, defines the English in all of theirs. Questions of accuracy I’ll leave to the linguists, and questions of Englishness I’ll leave to the English, though in any case those things seem less crucial in a production this side of the Atlantic; The Small Things works nicely as a language play, a prose poem in which rhythms are as important as accents.
So seductive are those rhythms, and so quietly domestic—so gentle and rueful and even funny—is the scene Debelack and Davenport create that it takes a repetition or two before the full horror of what they’re saying sinks in. Debelack is nervously brave, then luminously lost, as Man and Woman unearth memories that simply cannot be borne but must be for the sake of not forgetting each other; Davenport is staggeringly vulnerable, his performance a small miracle of interior agonies relieved by the most fleeting of remembered joys. And Kathleen Akerley’s exquisitely tender production orchestrates it all so delicately that you come away wondering how you could have heard their stories without shrinking, without screaming—only to realize later that a breathless silence, in the face of this play’s language, is the only possible response.