By Naomi Wallace; Directed by Caitlin McLeod
Produced by Signature Theatre
Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 9.14.14
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
by Andy Buck on 8.25.14
Emily Skeggs and Trae Harris in And I and Silence. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
BOTTOM LINE: Naomi Wallace’s new play about two inmates on the flip side of the American Dream is earnest but fails to soar.
The Signature Theatre launches its 24th season with And I and Silence, the first of three plays by Naomi Wallace. It’s a beautifully designed production, but ultimately an unpersuasive play, with an ending that won’t be revealed here but that feels unearned. The story moves back and forth over a period of nine years, with the earliest scenes set in the jail cell of a women’s prison in the early 1950s. There, two teenaged inmates named Jamie and Dee—one black, one white—forge an intense bond that picks up at the end of that decade, after they’ve both been released. (Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs play the younger versions of these women; Rachel Nicks and Samantha Soule portray them in their mid-20s.)
And I and Silence looks at the perverse underside of the American Dream, in which life behind bars can seem more hopeful and manageable than the cold reality of freedom, even during a decade in America’s past that some are tempted to nostalgically look back upon as a golden era of prosperity. It’s a particularly vital story to tell in our current day and age, when the U.S. has achieved one of the top five income gaps—as well as the very highest incarceration rate—in the world.
In her career, Wallace has created stirring portraits of characters of various races, genders, and sexualities, for whom working hard was never enough to lift them out of such grinding poverty, especially that of the rural Kentucky of her own childhood, as evoked in The Trestle of Pope Lick Creek and, to an extent, in the astonishing Gulf War-era tragedy In the Heart of America. Some of that vitality is missing here, however. In the very first moments of And I and Silence, the older Jamie and Dee square off in a confrontation that should, but doesn’t, feel dangerous and visceral, even though it’s quickly revealed to be one of many intimate, curious role-playing sequences that form the backbone of the story between these two.
It’s potentially intriguing in those scenes to observe how lines can blur between what’s real and what’s posed, especially when the dynamics of race bleed in, somewhat like the role-playing between the light-skinned and dark-skinned brothers in Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, which was revived at the Signature a few seasons ago. The pitfall is when that posing too successfully keeps Wallace’s characters at arms length—from each other and from us.
This is partly the result of overly rushed storytelling. In a late scene, a startling dream of Dee’s, which she shares in a moment of speaking from her own voice, presents the clearest hint yet of where this friendship is headed. But it feels dropped in rather than woven organically through the narrative. And director Caitlin McLeod helms a company of four actors who possess excellent technique, but who too frequently indicate their feelings rather then embody them. This is less true in the scenes between the two younger performers, Harris and Skeggs, who more often exude unpredictable impulses, such as Harris’s charmingly funny demonstration of a stylish cleaning lady. But here, too, it could help to let the play breathe a little and to bring in more details—perhaps, for instance, more background characters onstage to help us connect more with the menace Jamie and Dee face from others in the prison. We’re told of those dangers—indeed, the role playing throughout the play is a tool of survival against the threats they face offstage—but since we don’t see them for ourselves, we rarely feel them at a gut level.
This is no fault of the production designers, who do a wonderful job of conveying these threats as much as possible. The multiple, subtle layers of Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design and original music, for instance, blend ominously in the background with actions onstage—footsteps echoing down a hall, walking sticks pounding onto a floor. And Rachel Hauck makes use of the drab concrete of a stripped-bare courtyard theater space at the Signature to create a room that is bound up with a network of oppressive rusty pipes, stairways, and walkway grates, but that also—when she and lighting designer Bradley King want it to—floats dizzyingly in isolated space, with the burning lights of buried passions shining from beneath the surface.
(And I and Silence plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, through September 14, 2014. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 7:30PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 2PM. There is also a performance Sunday September 7 at 7:30PM, and there are no performances Tuesday August 26 or Thursday September 4. Tickets are $25 and are available by visiting signaturetheatre.org, or by calling 212.244.7529.)