Sunday, September 16, 2018

LONG TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Exquisite Suffering

You know from the play’s title that it won’t be a walk in the park but James Wilkinson’s flawless production of HANG (at the Arlington Masonic Temple through Sept. 30th) will be one of the best plays about pain and retribution you’ll see this fall. The playwright, Debbie Tucker Green, is British and her subject matter for HANG plays out in real time all over the globe.

Our news outlets cover all Trump all the time so we don’t hear much about the rest of the world but BBC radio (on NPR in the wee hours of the A.M.) plunges you into world news, with first hand accounts of horrors and atrocities (some perpetrated by our drones). You hear news from the World Court in The Hague, trying to work out (imperfect, impossible) solutions to redress wrongs. You hear about “truth and reconciliation” panels where perpetrators face their victims and admit to their actions. Miraculous stories, like Mandela forgiving the Afrikaners, like Tutsis and Hutus forgiving each other. It’s war inventing a new aftermath for itself.

All this and more floods your consciousness as you take in the play. You feel the blood rushing to your brain to absorb it all, as you try to figure out what has happened to the witness sitting so uncomfortably in a spare government office. Here’s the extraordinary craft and craftiness of the playwright: Green doesn’t tell us much at all. What isn’t said in Green’s play is what lurks in the Pinteresque pauses: The alchemy in her writing makes those powerful silences fairly scream in our souls. The three women in the play speak an economy of words because no one wants to dredge up the pain the witness has suffered. We have to fill in the gaps. We have to imagine the crime.

We think we know. Certainly the title gives us a clue but just who will or has been hanged? My brain is working in overdrive trying to figure out what countries sanction hanging so I know where these women are. But do I need to know where they are? I know Nigeria hangs dissidents because playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged for merely writing his ideas. (I can barely keep it together writing this review. It’s no picnic having to tap these memories of atrocities I store in my brain.) Green gives us another hint, about the children who survived the crime. Their childhood has been stolen, she tells us. Green says the children are now “hollow” and “mute.” And my brain rushes to the Mexican border where three thousand children have been separated from their parents, and are now living in cages in Texas, sleeping on a floor, muted, covered with silver sheets of mylar.

Exiled Theatre specializes in tough scripts. Somebody has to. I’m a firm believer in the change that words can make. Exiled is committed to “visceral” work which “fosters conversation,” it says in their mission statement. So far, and I’ve been to most of their plays, they do that. Here, director Wilkinson deftly molds the silences in HANG down to the millisecond. The three actresses working so feverishly NOT to say what has happened, do the impossible. They tell us in a shudder. In a helpless shrug, In a clenched jaw. In a forced kindness.

Angela Gunn and Angele Maraj portray the infuriating, supercilious bureaucrats trying so hard not to offend. Thankfully, they supply a (very) small window of humor, as they try, stumbling over each other, to coax a “decision” from the witness. They’re quite wonderful, placing their collective feet into their own mouths.

Imani Powell in a tour de force as the victim/witness (?), physically conveys how difficult it is, not only to testify about this crime, but how difficult it is to live with the crime still coursing through her veins. She sits like someone whose body has been restored to her but nothing in the restoration helps. Perhaps her organs, including her brain, have been returned to her but in the wrong order. She looks whole but inside she’s a jumble. When her patience with the bureaucrats runs out, we’re delighted that she can tell them off in no uncertain terms, that their proffered “concern” won’t do anything for her.  The point of the play, I think, is to ask can anything help after an atrocity?