In a Spartan apartment in a rundown section of London, a middle-aged entrepreneur surprises his ex-lover, a 30-ish schoolteacher, with a visit. They haven’t spoken in years. But tonight they’ll speak out a great deal—in declarations and in exchanges; as reunion, stalemate or farewell; to regain some sort of footing with each other, or in denunciation of each other.
This thumbnail sketch of the basic situation of David Hare’s Skylight, Shotgun’s new production at the Ashby Stage, directed by founder Patrick Dooley, sounds like any number of indifferent melodramas—soap operas, even.
But Hare is committed socially as a writer. He uses this tale of confrontation after a break-up and long absence following an intense (and extra-marital) affair as a way into a social conversation during a time exhausted of any but the most programmatic and clichéd discourse, fanning up the coals of desire, frustration and loneliness to bring the political squarely back into living, emotional dialogue—that dialogue reopening a discussion shut down through exhaustion, entropy . A nice irony: words of passion, recrimination, incomprehension carrying more public meaning for being the utmost in the personal—uttered, and contended with, in private.
Tom Sergeant (John Mercer), a self-made restaurateur, shows up unannounced to see Kyra Hollis (Emily Jordan), his driver sitting downstairs in his car. “You arrived like a goddamned storm trooper!” Kyra declares. She had once worked for Tom, lived with his family—and abruptly left when Tom’s wife discovered their involvement. “When you have something worked out in your own mind, and the balance is changed, you no longer believe your own story,” she says. “And that is the moment to leave.”
Now Tom’s wife is dead. (The title refers to the skylight above her bed in the house of glass Tom took her to in the country, to let in as much light and nature as possible.) “She became quite mystic,” Tom says. “I don’t mean to sound cruel, but it became bloody well difficult for me ... I gave her everything, but I felt frustrated ... When you grieve, there are no shortcuts. You suffer, that’s what you do.”
The two get into it in every way. Kyra chides Tom: “You don’t value happiness, because you always want more.” And Tom, the blue-collar boy made good, shoots back that she’s a prig, “a seaside solicitor’s daughter” who is “building a bunker,” duplicating the isolation of her father, a cat person who left his money to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When Kyra describes her “addiction” to listening to people talking on the bus, Tom accuses her of living in a bubble, seeking escape by expending great effort to move into a poor neighborhood when everybody there is trying to get out. This is the way everybody lives, Kyra replies. “You used to know that.”
With her self-described addiction to listening, Kyra is the perfect interlocutor—and the motor of the considerable action that underlies and oozes from the dialogue in this absorbing play. “Theater” has practically the same etymology as “theory”—and these two characters try out on each other in this little room all the voiced and unvoiced realizations and suppositions they live by.
Mercer and Jordan are very much each other’s match, reminding chronic Shotgunners of another Anglo stand-off betwixt the two, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (directed by Susannah Martin, whose staging of Pinter’s Old Times is being presented across town by TheatreFIRST—a nice juxtaposition). That show was one of the best, most pointed things Shotgun has staged in recent years; Skylight is its latter-day complement.
Besides Mercer’s bluff presence and Jordan’s ability to shift gears emotionally, signaling—or provoking—the changes of mood and action of the play, Carl Horvick-Thomas (who was memorable in UC Berkeley’s production of The Bacchae, directed by Barbara Oliver last year) opens the show as Tom’s intense 18-year-old son Edward in one rather edgy mode, later revealing yet another, brighter, more magnanimous moment in a dreary, snowy ’90s London slum. Like in a Buñuel film, there’s a lot of talk by a restaurateur and an ex-waitress about food—even some preemptory cooking onstage. But it sits on the plate while the air turns blue with just that talk, from hungry souls. It’s only at the end, in a marvelous, quiet coup-de-theatre, that Tom’s invitation to Kyra to drop by one of his restaurants (“It’s almost as good as eating at home”) comes full circle, with something more than wistfulness for the past or hope for the future, but the bounty of the present, something of both upper and lower social worlds to be shared: “Let’s eat!”
Presented at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and at 5 p.m. Sundays through April 26 by Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. $25. 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org.