(at the Civic's Studio Theatre through Feb. 22)
Grief Tolled and Retold
Grief Tolled and Retold
A group of people gathered in a circle, bearing witness to a ritual. Lips pursed, shoulders hunched, eyes averted from the racking sobs of a mother overwhelmed by grief. Her son has been dead these seven years. The sadness is almost more than the people watching her can bear.
*The Women of Lockerbie* (through Feb. 22) concentrates the enormity of terrorists' mass murder into a shared, communal event. Playwright Deborah Brevoort's dramatic lament is capable of great power when shared in a small room with dozens of others.
But it squanders emotional impact with obvious and unnatural exposition and with a Greek chorus device that too often intrudes to explain everything we just witnessed. And one of the central performances in the Civic's production stands outside grief, as if observing sadness, not enacting it.
Bill and Madeline Livingston led a comfortable middle-class life until a nightmare scenario exploded into their lives: Seven years ago, a terrorist's bomb on Pan Am 103 had incinerated their adult son, leaving no trace at all. The residents of the Scottish town which was the crash site offer comfort and consolation, but Bill remains stoic, and Madeline is still tearing her hair out.
Or should be, which is the problem: Kate Vita needs to let go more in the role, let her grief and anger overflow. It's an overwhelming task, like being asked to do Lady Macbeth's mad scene without a warm-up. But the actress playing Madeline has to hit an emotional peak at the outset. Vita instead offers a kind of ironic detachment, as if still in denial. (She's surprised to hear that she always used to get angry over what she'd like to recall instead as endearing moments that she shared with her son.) Perhaps Vita is playing the perfectionistic side of Madeline's character: She was a perfect housewife, a perfect mother, and now she needs to be show-off perfect in her grief.
But the chorus underlines her every mood change (telling us unnecessarily that Madeline, in hyper-grief mode, resembles a tree split down the middle by lightning). Again and again, they explain mood changes just as things start to get emotionally interesting, undermining the scenes' intensity.
In contrast, as the grieving father, Kevin Connell earns his grief by keeping it under control at first. After he informs the Lockerbie women (and us) that his wife has been on a seven-year crying jag and is now wandering the Scottish moors, wildly searching for clothes (of her son's) that will never be found, watch for Connell's look of resignation and averted eyes as he delegates to strangers the painful task of dealing with his own wife. A speech about returning Adam's clothes to unaware department store clerks constrains the anger and sadness, even though you can see it boiling behind his eyes. A speech about religious doubt -- about how God must be absent, about how there is no "lesson" in Adam's death, because that would mean he had died just to enlighten his father -- gains power from being delivered by a real-life Jesuit. And later, Connell scuttles across the stage, frantic, getting in his wife's face, imploring her to let go of Adam and hold on to the man in her family who's still alive. You could hear his labored breathing; you sensed the emotional price it had all exacted.
Connell has the less demanding job -- constrain, restrain, then explode -- as opposed to Vita's need to be frantic/angry/desperate, then cling to that intensity until nearly the play's end. Yet Vita's performance still has several good moments. When she heard about the explosion, she says, Madeline had been rolling pie dough, just "the way my mother taught me" -- and Vita's tenderness in the moment encapsulates just how much a parent's love means, how awful it is when that bond is broken.
As the leader of the Lockerbie chorus, Marianne McLaughlin has an intensity that pierces the unnaturalism of the trio's sometimes clichéd chanting. There's anguish on her face, though it's kept in check until a late-play revelation creates one of her most riveting moments.
Director Sara Edlin-Marlowe keeps the energy circulating in the Studio's theater-in-the-round intimacy, even if the three-woman chorus often walks, sits, stands too much in unison, like an over-choreographed trio of woe. She varies her use of the four exit-entrances in Peter Hardie's set, providing a sense of offstage action and using elevations well to emphasize when characters are dominant or downtrodden. She inserts some playful dances and some startling confrontations that relieve the gloom. (Sitting in an audience of Americans while hearing that Americans can be such damn know-it-alls has a humbling effect. We don't know everything there is to know about grieving -- or anything else.)
Jan Wanless and Susan Berger provide scarves and tweeds that make you feel the chill of the North Sea wind. Hardie's lighting scheme, however, sometimes brightens and darkens obtrusively, straining too hard to affect mood.
Brevoort's drama is still effective as a communal, ritualistic experience, and *Lockerbie* offers two piercing images near its end: bleeding flesh becomes a symbol of the self-hatred that turns to masochism when hatred for others is harbored for a long time. And in a final gesture of generosity and healing, grief is mitigated when finally the focus falls away from me, me, me, my grief to the concerns of others. In this world, no one's sadness is unique.
It was deeply affecting to watch the Livingstons, each in their own way, try to fend off a pain that would not go away -- and eventually to get the best of it. (Or at least much of it.) The Civic's production offers a couple of outstanding performances and several good ones, and it's undeniably affecting to see a married couple (along with an entire town) ripping out their hearts as they try to stifle hatred and replace it with a love of life, a willingness to continue the daily struggle. But uneven acting and a script that explains too much keep the Civic's *Lockerbie* from being a completely enthralling experience.