Lost in Place
Groping toward the eternal now in Body of Water
BY SUZI STEFFEN
Imagine waking next to someone you don’t know, that person’s body next to yours, in a house you’ve never seen before, on some kind of island where bewildering things might occur.
That’s marriage, right?
|Wren (Amy Wray) explains to Avis (Janet Steiger Carr) and Moss (Mikel MacDonald) who they are|
Or so runs the poignant joke in Lee Blessing’s 2003 work, A Body of Water, now playing at the Willamette Repertory Theatre. Artistic Director Kirk Boyd, who directed Body, has been all over the media in the past few weeks, giving potential audience members the feeling that coming to the show will bring them into an uncertain world of potentially delightful mysteries.
“If we have no memory and we have no future, all we have is now,” Boyd says. Willamette Rep performed the play in Readings in Rep a couple of years ago, and, he says, “Five hours later, people were still talking about it.”
But while the plot (complicated by a young woman who may or may not be the two other characters’ daughter) remains alive with potential, is this a play that works as well in the formal confines of the Soreng?
Perhaps. Troy Hemmerling’s set confirms the tone of the play: The house (of which we see a living room) looks spacious, well-appointed, and comfortable in a rather academic, upper middle-class way (the lovely furniture is on loan from M. Jacobs, for instance). This room looks out onto a nicely abstract birch-dominated forest. The woman (Janet Steiger Carr) and man (Mikel MacDonald) who awake without indicator of their identities sport healthy hair and teeth, cared-for bodies and brains that sometimes seem to work quite well. They like bagels and coffee in the morning, know how to garden, enjoy crosswords and magazines like National Geographic and have the capability to engage in witty banter and speak plausibly of sexual attraction.
But their tentative (and faintly amusing) efforts to figure out who they are and how they got to an isolated house — from which the ground, physically and metaphorically, drops away in every direction — come to a grinding halt when Wren (Amy Wray) bounds into their midst like a furious border collie, ready to herd them towards enlightenment. But Wren’s story changes with each passing moment. What should they believe? Does Wren ever tell the truth, or is she creating each narrative out of whole cloth? The one thing in each of Wren’s iterations that remains constant is their names: The woman is Avis, the man named Moss.
As a stand-in for authorial intent, the character of Wren, while stirring up important questions, contains a bit too much insouciance. Wray pouts, rolls her eyes and seems impatient throughout both acts, which indicates that she knows too much. This is a problem for an audience slowly discovering what’s going on, an audience that deserves actors whose characters don’t anticipate the entire play from the beginning (that is to say, if an actor plays Hamlet as if he knows Hamlet will be killed, the play loses its necessary narrative force; the same thing happens here).
And as Avis, Carr doesn’t quite work. Some of this is easily altered; she’s a bit too made up, her hair too styled — simple things to fix. And perhaps Carr will settle into her character more as the play’s run progresses. In the first act, Avis might be confused (and Carr might be over-enunciating and sounding continally aggrieved), but she’s a competent adult. After a shocking revelation from Wren, she wilts and never quite recovers her composure — even though Avis loses her memory each day. MacDonald’s performance stands out, however; he’s a realistic actor with skill and calm awareness of his character — though he too must sometimes perform in the larger-than-life manner that the Soreng’s odd size seems to encourage.
Truly, it’s marvelous that Boyd took a chance with new material, starting early with an extra play in the season. And Body of Water isn’t a bad evening out, at least not after the slow first act. Certainly, however it’s executed, the script raises some issues about long-term partnership and about the comfort of having other kind humans nearby.
“Do you think people who have been married a long time enjoy this show?” a person in front of me asked her companion at the end of the play. The finest moments come as a kind of anti-No Exit, when Avis and Moss realize that though they don’t know themselves, they can at least cling to each other; they’re stranded by accident or design, but when Wren exits the scene, they’re entirely alone — together.