When relating the narrative of another’s story, you typically hear: “it’s about a road trip,” or “it’s about a zoo,” “ a war,” “a murder.” But almost all good plays and stories are, at heart, about relationships and epiphanies; the greater context is for premise and drama. Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me has, as context, a Washington, D.C. alert to our contemporary history of school shootings, gun violence, physical crime, terrorism and rage. Nonetheless it is about the relationship among the three characters as they are increasingly stressed by one member’s growing premonitions of disaster.
The cast includes Celia Pilkington as Beth, a D.C. public school teacher, Ryan Kim as Tucker, Beth’s husband, a man with an unspecified national security job, and Kelly McCready as Adele, a new teacher in the district working alongside Beth. Beth and Adele strike up a confessional friendship – Adele is new to town and needs a friend; Beth is married to Tucker whose work life (and personal life) are walled off even from Beth by confidentiality obligations and his regular withdrawal into video shooter games.
Adele (Kelly McCready, on right), explains her vision to Beth (Celia Pilkington)
Adele lives in a fifth floor apartment near the capitol and is newly exposed, – through her huge windows, to big city shocks – crashes, demonstrations, helicopters, sirens – to which she develops a plausible but unhealthy aversion. She fixates on an auto accident that she had watched evolve inevitably from her aerie – but could not stop. She obsesses, by implication, about her inability to intercede to stop the carnage. Subsequently she observes a mob of masked men who, in her mind, pose a massive but unspecified threat to the city. She summons the police only to see the mob melt away. Her paranoia builds, and her certainty of the impending disaster prompts her to take remedial actions that build to a surprising climax and a spiral into tumult that is left to our imaginations.
I credit actors who can project emotions and perceptions they have almost certainly never experienced – almost certainly aided in this instance by the strong direction of Adam Thorburn. This is a young cast by most lights and each member creates a credible and sometimes disturbing personification – although the 90 minute running time is challengingly brief to make the transitions entirely natural. Adele externalizes her anxiety from the first, and cultivates it as time passes –smoking, de-pilling her sweater, fidgeting with her cuffs and fingers; she does convey the panic that accompanies the terror of an inexplicable and even admittedly implausible foreboding.
Beth (Celia Pilkington) and Tucker (Ryan Kim)
Tucker is a more two dimensional character than Beth or Adele but that is likely a directorial choice arising from his emotional remoteness; he embodies the disassociation we have come to expect from the dramatic persona of self-important government functionaries – especially in our current political climate. Beth effectively vacillates between her increasingly abrading friendship for Adele and her frustratingly remote relationship with Tucker.
Director Thorburn moves this story along in a taut 90 minutes without muddying any of the details while drawing from each actor recitations emotionally true to the story line. Author Kathryn Coughlin’s exposition is natural without being predictable, and the cast makes the most of the dialogue – viscerally conveying their stresses and the sincerity of the resulting strains. Nonetheless I still felt a bit less than satisfied with the foundational motivation laid for Adele’s visions, angst and certainty of doom. This is a minor weakness in the script that might be addressed if desired – and does not detract a whit from the theatricality or electricity of the evening. My greater concern is over the play’s final minutes which, despite a legitimate and plausible surprise, did not reveal to me a moral, a motivation or a resolution. That reflects a school of writing that embraces the ineffability of life, and one cannot argue with that – but I left a little bit hungry.
Tucker (Ryan Kim) and Adele (Kelly McCready)
Coughlin’s plays include More Than Before; Slip; They Say There’s a War Going On; Sounds of Alarm; and All We Have; her work has been produced by Field Trip Theater, Rorschach Theatre, Inkwell Theatre, 1MPF, DC-Page-to-Stage, St. Bonaventure University, The Disreputables and Meat and Bone Theatre Company. Her career path has included dramaturge, literary manager and teacher – in association with a variety of small theater companies.
The Studio Theater space is a modest square, on a flat floor, with a single stage entrance – no wings, no proscenium, no curtain; the chairs are on risers. The lighting is hung from perhaps 7 pipes. All the stagecraft must be managed with the utmost directness. You-Shin Chen divides the stage into Beth’s and Tucker’s apartment on the one side and Adele’s on the other by a simple placement of furniture and the device of transitioning between them by moving upstage behind an opaque partition. It works. Gilbert Pearto contributes to that division with lighting, and to the verisimilitude of Tucker’s video game playing with the flickering of the video on his face. That also works. Andy Evan Cohen, sound designer, provides appropriately strident and ominous sounds at times of tension, along with sirens and breaking glass to set up Adele’s state of tension. The entire experience is craftsman-like and engaging without intruding on the drama.
Photo Credit: Madeleine Boudreaux
Top photo: Celia Pilkington as Beth and Kelly McCready as Adele
Studio 28 staged “Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me” by Kathryn Coughlin, directed by Adam Thorburn, at Studio Theater on Manhattan’s Theater Row – for a brief run: May 10-13, 2017.