The space between
Written by Ariel Dorfman
Directed by Alix Steel and Stephen Singer
Presented by The Spare in NY
Produced by special arrangement by Samuel French, Inc.
Equity Showcase (closes July 22)
Review by Judd Hollander
The act of being able to forgive. Not only being forgiven for one's past misdeeds, criminal acts and morally reprehensible decisions, but also the act of the guilty party being able to forgive those whose actions set in motion an unspeakable tragedy. This is the issue presented in Ariel Dorfman’s very intriguing work Purgatorio, where the chance for redemption can only be found in such forgiveness.
As the play opens we see a woman (Sarah Babb) screaming in torment in a prison-like room. A place with only a bed (with sheets she keeps ripping), a table and two chairs. The only way out is barred by formable-looking steel door. Into said room walks a man (Daniel Aho) - no one has any names here. It's unclear if the new arrival is a doctor or caseworker, but it's obvious he's in a position of authority (complete with the requisite notebook, chart and pen) as he tries to get the woman to admit the wrongs of what she has done. It seems she committed a crime involving her children and the woman her husband left her for; a lady who offered more social and political connections than the angry female we see before us.
It soon becomes clear (to the audience, if not the woman)
this is not merely a holding cell or treatment center; nor are we in a
hospital, prison or police station. Rather, the location is suspended between
this world and the next and where time has no meaning (at least none that is
linear). It's a place where those who have committed sins while on earth must
remain until they have healed themselves enough to move on. Additionally, the
gentleman attempting to get the woman to forgive those she believes deserved
what they got has a very personal interest in this situation, as his chance for
salvation is tied directly to hers.
But hatred is a strong drug, especially if it's all one has left. Indeed, the woman has become so full of anger and envy, not to mention self-justification, she may not be ready to leave it all behind - no matter how terrible the alternative. It's this "will she or won't see" question which keeps the audience riveted, as well as the realization of who these two people in fact are. (The names of the man and woman are never revealed, but one can discern their identities if one is familiar with mythology or tragedy in literature.)
Babb is wonderful as a woman filled with inner torment, with emotions ranging from volcanic to seductive, and trying to come to terms with her actions but at the same time refusing to abandon the belief that what she did was right (at least in her mind). This roller-coaster persona is nicely counterbalanced by Aho’s character’s desperation. Outwardly self-assured and smarmy, at least in the beginning, he is desperate for the woman to forgive those who wronged her because it's the only way they both can escape the circular track on which they both find themselves.
The direction by Steel and Singer is good and keeps the action flowing smoothly. The sets (uncredited in the program) and lighting by Marshall Coles perfectly set the ominous and foreboding tone of the story.
Best of all, Purgatorio doesn't overstay its welcome, as do many “message” plays. Clocking in at a brisk 80 minutes, it has enough time to set the story, make its point and depart without hitting one over the head with its message. Playwrights would do well to school themselves in Dorfman’s succinct method of making the audience feel the impact of their message. Here, Aho and Babb are the perfect conveyors of his message.
Copyright 2007 Judd Hollander
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