A man and a woman, wearing the obvious greasepaint makeup of amateur theatricals, sit in a little triangular room on a makeshift stage, complete with naked-bulb footlights and a painted curtain.  They speak to us with the emphatic and cadenced accents of the Lancashire area of England, in a manner that feels confidential and forthright though also oddly prickly and at times slightly distracted.

As the two take us into their confidences—the Man (Christopher Geary) talking about his encounters, as a six year old, with his mother’s breasts, the Woman (Emily Reilly) describing her father’s imposition of “order” and multiplication tables on the household—we might begin to feel they aren’t quite “all there,” particularly as the man keeps worrying an alarm clock and the woman treats her little array of knickknacks as though they are alive.  They have a fondness in their manner that makes them easy to listen to, even if the implications of much of what they say is left to us to interpret—as when they both chortle about “chit-chat, chit-chat, chit-chat” as though the phrase calls up liberating associations.

As the parallel monologues go on, we realize they are reminiscing about events from the same period of their lives—from six, when they first met one another, to about twelve—and that the period is warmly recalled by both, as a time inspired by the strength of their feeling for one another.  It is to Walsh’s credit that he gives such vibrant voices to figures assumed to be elderly, making their recollections create a view of childhood romance that is truly striking.

Gradually, within the same extended recollections, the memories become infused with the horrific and traumatic, having to do with a draconian imposition of conformity by Woman’s father and the Man from the Chip Shop: the two decide who will be silenced by slicing out the tongues of anyone they choose, which leads as well to random killings.

Our entry into this world of past horror follows a unique trajectory—from verbal comedy to an understanding that speech itself can be a crime and, finally, to the sense that only the ability to keep talking about the past, giving words to experience, is what allows humans to maintain a grasp on meaning and identity.

Both performers in the piece are to be commended for letting us into this world. The play, almost static in its staging, must take over our imaginations almost entirely by speech alone—with a few props, an entertaining use of a recorded song Man, as a boy, gave to Woman, as a girl, and a telling use of dramatic percussion and lighting.  At one key moment the duo, bathed in a kind of transcendent light, seem to see one another as Man bids Woman speak of what she remembers.  In that one moment, we might say, he is face-to-face with his past, and with the love of a life that involves a horrible act of betrayal.

Geary is wonderful at remaining in character while also having an eye out for the audience as an element of the play.  He helps us realize that the use of the curtain and footlights and facepaint is meant to give us a feel for the failings of the naturalism of theater, and a sense that the past is something we always to some extent “stage” upon the present.  Reilly is particularly good at creating the fond regard of a doting woman for whom even betrayal and brutality are part of the vitality of her youth.  It’s a performance that stays with you as both endearing and sinister.

While I have caveats about how well thought-out Walsh’s backstory is—it’s best taken as a kind of nightmare of village life, insular and absolute (the age of the children is necessary to the effect)—I have no doubts about the skill, ingenuity, and power of this production.  We owe Reilly, her co-director Hugh Farrell, and company thanks for The Small Things.

 

The Small Things
By Enda Walsh
Directed by Emily Reilly and Hugh Farrell

Costume Designer: Nikki Delhomme; Co-Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan; Co-Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Dramaturg: Hugh Farrell; Percussionist: Victor Caccese; Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Producer: Eric Gershman

Yale Cabaret
217 Park Street
March 7-9, 2013

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