“Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”
Everything that has a beginning has an end. In today’s terms, when it comes to love and marriage, odds are nearly even that the end will come sooner than later. In Matthew Freeman’s play That Which Is, we meet two people who have committed themselves to a relationship that is failing spectacularly. Under a tree in a field far away from their city home, they share a conversation, only possibly knowing that it’s the final unraveling of their troubled marriage. Later, a conversation in a restaurant fills in some of the details of what happened after that night.
Helen (Moira Stone) and Jim (David Delgrosso) sit with their backs to a tree. They don’t know what kind, but that is just another subject to argue about that night. Not that it even matters. They have hurt each other; that much is clear with every motion, every look, every clipped comment and every sarcastic retort. They seem calm, but that calmness is belied by shaking voices, by the way in which they over-annunciate when speaking to each other, by the level of feigned consideration one takes on when making a point with words to someone they would rather impale on a knifepoint.
There is distrust. There has been infidelity. It may have been one of them though it was probably both. They are alike in that, but despise each other for their similarity as well. For a moment they are suddenly reminded of what it was that first drew them to each other, they can let the past go and live for a time in the other’s embrace. But time is fleeting, and by the time the sun rises a decision has been made.
In this first act there is a lot of frustrated hair ruffling, a lot of upturned palms imploring the other person to understand and empathize. But empathy is impossible when you’re walking on eggshells and looking for offense at every conversational turn. It isn’t pleasant and it isn’t comfortable but it smacks of truth. The dialogue can be stiff and awkward, but again it makes sense in the situation with two people who run cold when they’re angry.
The second act actually is the stronger of the two, despite there being so little movement around the space. Helen and Jim’s friend Marcus (Mick O’Brien) sit together in a restaurant. The reason for the meeting isn’t initially clear, and only after a lot of awkward conversation — with both parties trying to play it straight while emotions swirl and rage just under the surface — does the situation emerge.
When we see her again, Helen is dressed sharply; she walks confidently, with purpose, exuding an aura of power and imperviousness. Marcus, meanwhile, stammers a bit and fumbles for answers to Helen’s often-probing questions. He’s clearly shaken by the situation and the position he has assumed, as well as by the fact that he’s out while his wife and young daughter wait for him to come home.
What comes out as the dinner progresses is evidence that Helen’s steely appearance is just that, a front she has put up to protect her from having to feel too much. She’s a cynic who doesn’t like getting close to other people for fear of getting hurt, but that’s not something anyone can avoid completely. Her act is so good, in fact, that what she portrays, frankly, is a cold, hard bitch. And she knows it. She pushes Marcus to say it, to tell her what he thinks of her, to reason out why Jim’s sister hates her so much. It’s so clear, but equally so is the disappointment she holds on to for her decision to be like that.
Director Kyle Ancowitz presents the play as a series of vignettes, using fading lights to distinguish the passage of time between scenes. Often they come up mid-story, or even midsentence, so the audience has to do some work to keep track of what’s going on and rely on cues like the table settings to work out how much time has passed. It’s an easier thing to do in the restaurant than out in the field where only the relative positions of bodies to each other demarcate the theoretical hours that pass.
Freeman’s script is like a literary iceberg, with much of its context floating dark under the surface and requiring some extrapolation based on his characters’ exchanges. The threat of setting it up that way is that sometimes the gun that’s introduced early on may never go off, or do so too subtly. There are questions that are left unanswered or only ambiguously addressed. Though you wouldn’t know the fullness of the story if you were, for example, the waiter present to listen in during service or water refills, as an audience member invested in understanding the full complexity of the work it would be nice to know at least what each character is talking about. What we do get, however, is fascinating.
Despite the uneasy nature of their characters’ meeting, Stone and O’Brien work in really nice counterpoint to each other. They look as if they each have a lot going on inside as they let the conversation unfold, but also look like they’re really listening to each other. Helen and Jim are at odds, and Stone and Delgrosso press through the first act looking like they have their hackles up, listening as much as they need to in order to argue back — listening but not really hearing. It makes their scenes feel stiff and awkward, but then the relationship is stiff and awkward.
As advertised, That Which Isn’t is a heartbreaking work. But when you leave I’ll bet you’ll want to hug someone you love and feel grateful for what you have.
Photos by Kyle Ancowitz
That Which Isn’t
579 Metropolitan Avenue between Union and Larimer Streets
Call Ovation: 866-811-4111
Through Saturday, August 20, 2016