Sleeping Rough

The family at the center of Kara Manning’s Sleeping Rough has fractured long before the death that starts the play: the parents, after divorcing years ago, live in different countries, and the now grown children are absorbed in their own preoccupations, equally though differently incomprehensible to those parents. After the divorce, Mark returned to his native London and his BBC DJ career, marrying several more times and keeping his children at a polite, birthdays-and-holidays distance; his current wife has only met them twice. Joanna, who’d met Mark as an art student, traded large-scale canvases for graphic design in magazines, an industry that’s crumbling around her now. Izzy, their daughter, studies and raises bees on a city rooftop, immersing herself in the insular world of bee academia and urban apiculture. And Charlie, Izzy’s younger brother, has—unaccountably to all—enlisted in the army.

Joanna and Mark are both baffled by the children they’ve raised—contemplative, reserved, Dave Matthews fans who went to Woodstock in 1999 and consider that just as real—and by the turns their own lives have taken. Slightly too young for the counterculture of the sixties (Joanna let her children believe that she was at the 1968 Chicago riots, when in fact she was an eight-year-old in a Milwaukee suburb, trying to pedal there on her kid’s bike but never making it past Kenosha), both still rebelled to the best of their abilities: art school in another country, working in the music business, squats in London. They had passion and ambition and somehow they’ve wound up middle-aged, just as confused and lost and estranged as everyone else.

And when Charlie is killed, almost immediately upon arrival in Iraq, they are all suddenly conscious of the chance they’ve lost to put those pieces back together into the whole they never had. They’re all grieving, of course, but in some ways they’re mourning the loss of the family that didn’t exist as much as the loss of an actual member. And with the selfishness of grief, each becomes somehow even less able to be what the others need; although they all eventually end up in the same physical place (London, where Joanna flees, trying to return to her own youth, and Izzy follows), they’re still, for a long time, circling one another warily, trying to adjust.

Because the piece is, in some ways, as much about the loss of one’s own youth, one’s own sense of future possibilities, as it is the loss of one’s child (not that these are entirely separate), it makes sense that most of it takes place in London: the scene of Joanna’s most passionately remembered youth, the place before Mark and Joanna’s marriage fell apart, the home of Izzy’s barely remembered young childhood. (Manning’s ability to sketch in a phrase the difference between England and America—in idiom, in attitude, in the relationship between place and object and person—is one of the play’s strengths.) The complexity of the play lies in the complexity of Mark’s and Joanna’s loss; it’s not just a son they’ve lost but the rhythm of generations passing, in a way that forces them to confront their own failures and the remnants of their own hopes and dreams.

The structure of the piece mimics the isolation the characters have from each other and their tentative forays into connecting, shifting from direct address to the audience into fragments of person-to-person conversation and out again. Even when talking to each other, a lot of the time they’re really talking to themselves.

With the heightened emotional backdrop and the amount of the language that’s in monologues, it would be an easy piece to overact, but it’s acted and directed beautifully, with a restraint that’s in some ways more painful than flamboyant grieving would be.  Director Sam Buntrock has kept everything just at the edge of control; these people’s feelings are real, and deep, but they’re not used to revealing anything to one another and it doesn’t come naturally among them. The production design, too, is an exercise in elegance and restraint, especially Kris Stone’s set, which evokes bureaucracy, compartmentalization, packing, and beekeeping all in a wall of file boxes.

While all three actors are doing strong work, I didn’t find all the character portrayals equally successful: Mark, in particular, walks the line between rich and rueful portrait of a fading British trend-setter of a certain age, and broad caricature of the same; Quentin Mare gives him a precise understanding of his own loss, and his own failings, and lets us see the genuine fear behind his reserve. With Izzy, I felt like sometimes the bee metaphor, the object of her obsession, stands in for more nuanced emotional development, though Renata Friedman plays well the abstracted absorption of the scholar, who cares deeply about her lost brother but would also rather focus on her intellectual passions than her own emotional landscape. But Joanna (at least up until the very end of the play) is marvelous. In some ways, her rage and grief are the strongest emotions she’s felt in some time; we see Kellie Overbey finding strength, and purpose, and courage, even as her mourning is driving her more than a little mad. 

Too, the ending of the play felt a little abrupt to me; while emotionally I welcomed the chance to see these characters find some peace, I would have liked to see a little more of their journey toward it. But it’s deeply moving, and well worth seeing.