Sunday, January 24, 2016

Conflicted views search for clarity through 'Skylight,' a production of David Hare's play at Theatre on the Square

Far into the first act of "Skylight," I started to anticipate the simultaneous appearance on the Theatre on the Square stage of Tom Sargeant, a bluff, opinionated London businessmen, and his alienated, directionless son, Edward. As the second act proceeded, I began to ache for it.

Then it became clear I was trying to put David Hare's play into a box it didn't belong in — the sort of play where all the major conflicts characters bring to the fore are catapulted into the future by a confrontation. Isn't that where we often think we live — in an ever-vanishing present marked largely by the effort of lugging our past forward, both hoping for and dreading a clarifying jolt toward understanding?

Bill Simmons as Tom Sargeant: The control freak starts to lose his touch in Act 2.
 "Skylight" is not that kind of play. Father and son never appear together; instead their neediness pivots around the third character, Kyra Hollis, who left the Sargeant household suddenly several years before, exposing a gaping family wound.

Kyra is now a schoolteacher living in one depressed area of London and working in another a long commute away. The play's scene — her apartment, designed astutely for TOTS by John Walker to exhibit her fragile yet orderly grip on the lower middle class — embraces the separate, unannounced visits of Tom and Edward.

The overwhelming emotional weight of those visits (and the bulk of stage time) falls on the Tom-Kyra relationship. Hanging over it is the ghost of Tom's wife Alice, who succumbed to cancer after an agonizing decline, propped up in a room her husband had built for her — a room with a skylight, creating for the dying invalid a vestibule of heaven.

Construing this room spiritually was Alice's project, recalled disparagingly by Tom in the flood of
Sarah McGee as Kyra, whose options seem better grounded than they at first appear.
talk that passes between the ex-lovers. He deplores the very words "spiritual" and "guilt," he says, on top of scorning Kyra's post-Sargeant life. He believes talented people of good breeding and energy are obligated to go for the brass ring, not slink downward into pockets of misplaced charity.

The go-go nineties happened in Britain, too, we're reminded. A corporate-minded restaurateur, Tom makes his case in terms Americans will recognize: People beaten down by life probably "made bad life choices." Material success, on the other hand, is the tangible reward for good character, and Tom feels unfairly stung by political winds that buffet "job creators," belittling enterprise and hard work. In the second act, Kyra gathers strength for a rebuttal of this outlook, railing against establishment bromides and the comfortable habit of blaming the victim.

The playwright has piled heavy burdens on all three characters. The contrasting social and political  views of Kyra and Tom are embedded in their personal baggage; the 18-year-old Edward's outlook is less sophisticated, but equally aggrieved. Hare gives to each a mode of expression that never seems to be merely about intellectual calisthenics. They aren't mouthpieces for opposed political stances as we so often find in the plays of George Bernard Shaw.

Signaled particularly by Tom's withering attitudes, all three are without sources of spiritual succor. "Skylight" takes place in a thoroughly secularized UK, and the only important history is personal, sucking all the air out of a wider consciousness of time. While watching the opening-night performance, I thought of William Faulkner's oft-quoted assertion: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

But more to the point than this Zen-like apothegm is something on the same theme at the end of his Paris Review interview: "Time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people," Faulkner said. "There is no such thing as was — only is. If was existed, there would be no grief or sorrow."

The is of these characters constitutes a burden to them, expressed in terms of memory. But it's fully present and threatens to overload the viewer as well. Hare goes beyond the function of exposition — where characters bring up naturally the information it's vital for the audience to know — to saturate the play with an encyclopedia containing only three entries: A short one for Edward, massive ones for Kyra and Tom.

Edward, a successful man's son at loose ends, seeks to reconnect with Kyra
Under the direction of Gari Williams, the performances hold up well. They are animated and fully fleshed out. An immediate strong impression was made by Tyler Ostrander as the play got under way; his Edward was as demonstrative physically as vocally. A virtually discarded son desperate to find a purpose in life, Edward is seeking something in Kyra he has to flail a bit to find. His success becomes evident in the touching final scene.

As Kyra, Sarah McGee had a willowy intensity that suited the character's suppleness as well as her vulnerability. The acoustics of TOTS' main stage are not flattering to actors' voices, and hers is perhaps a little light. But she made up for that in several ways: Even the character's quiet wariness was sharply etched, and the ferocity toward Tom that emerges in the second act was heart-piercingly genuine. Hare cannily implies that the couple's sexual reunion (in the imaginative space of the intermission) has aroused Kyra's feistiness.

Tom and Kyra tentatively envision a future together
Bill Simmons reflected in his postures and voice his character's well-applied veneer of self-confidence and gimlet-eyed bravado. He also  accounted for much of the play's humor. Tom's mimicry of his new corporate bosses and the phoniness of Britain's booming managerial class was sharply satirical. His vanity poured forth abundantly in Simmons' portrayal; it was like one of those chocolate fondue fountains you sometimes see at fancy receptions.

Thus, the richness of the text wearies the palate. Lots of credit goes to director Gari Williams for moving the actors around TOTS' wide space well. All that talk needs the abundant punctuation of gesture and movement. Especially impressive was the amount of dialogue between Tom and Kyra in the first act in which they were about forty feet apart with no loss of dramatic engagement.

I was reminded of those Eugene O'Neill characters who seem to absorb everything around them, often too much for both them and us. You sense that if they ever stop talking they will implode. Hare resembles O'Neill in creating characters that captivate us and engage our sympathies — and at length dare us to find them tedious. The locus classicus of this kind of character for me is King Lear. Tom Sargeant is definitely not more sinned against than sinning, but like Shakespeare's king, he's his own worst enemy.

A man who's his own worst enemy usually focuses his combative energy on finding a way to abandon the battlefield. Lear does it through going mad; Tom, in a manner that can't be revealed here. Ethically, and not just because I'm a liberal, my sympathy comes down on Kyra's side. Her departure from the Sargeant household, held up for so much of the play as a quixotic, willful escape, turns out to be better grounded morally than anything Tom does.

He's fascinating but toxic, totally self-absorbed but not really self-aware. Lacking that redeeming quality, he's a vulgar modern version of another tragic Shakespeare hero: Hamlet. He's exuberantly manipulative, like the Danish prince. But he's also afflicted with unexpiated touches of the guilty Claudius. His "words without thoughts never to heaven go."

That's not Tom's milieu, and he's well practiced in ways to compensate for the lack of it. Heaven in this play is for the absent Alice to have gazed toward through the skylight. Our earthly views are roughly filtered through the flow of time, whose momentary avatars we can't help being in Faulkner's never-ending is. This fine production confirms the surplus of grief and sorrow always to be found in that sphere.