The Pull of Negative Gravity
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
May 14, 2005
The Pull of Negative Gravity, a British play about a wounded soldier’s return home from the current war in Iraq, packs an emotional punch. It provides a slightly unfamiliar lens through which to view a situation that grows more common the longer the war continues—though in truth the story could well be plucked from the newspaper of a small Midwestern American town. Two brothers, running a failing family farm after their father’s death, flip a coin to see who goes off to war and who stays behind with their mother. The one who goes, Dai, leaves behind a fiancee, Bethan, a nurse who herself yearns for a life of adventure and excitement. The one who stays, Rhys, is also a little bit in love with Bethan, and Bethan is perfectly happy to dally with him while Dai is away. Then Dai returns home, seriously wounded in both body and spirit.
The heart of the piece is the wrenching struggle of the family to re-form itself. The play’s most powerful moments are the tiny, often wordless, recognitions of how terribly things have changed for all four of these people: the stunned silence of Dai’s first entrance in a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side and barely able to speak; the look on Bethan’s face as her new husband begs her to kiss him and her only response is nausea; Rhys’s matter-of-fact adjustment to carrying his older brother around as if he were a suitcase, so that Dai can get outside. Bethan goes through with the wedding even though she can barely bring herself to look Dai full in the face, let alone touch him. Dai’s mother, Vi, had let herself believe that Dai’s injuries were negligible, and doesn’t quite know how to share either her strength or her grief with him.
All four actors give very strong, and very distinct, performances. Joanne Howarth as Vi is all nuance—Vi is stoic, unsentimental; she feels deeply but wouldn’t dream of discussing it with anyone. Louise Collins as Bethan is just the opposite—an exposed nerve ending, bubbling over with the desire to feel, smell, taste the world, and without the good sense to know when to close off a little. Lee Haven-Jones as Dai has the most physically challenging role, shuttling back and forth in flashbacks and/or fantasy sequences between the strong, joyful Dai of last year and the grievously wounded man of today, desperate to communicate and to love and to be touched, and barely able to make his simplest statements understood. You feel his frustration and his rage almost coming off his twisted form in waves, and it’s a release for both audience and actor when the flashbacks and fantasy sequences come and he can walk and speak again. And Daniel Hawksford as Rhys is simply, often painfully honest—the man who says what he thinks, knows what he feels, and all too often pays a terrible price for it.
Director Gregory Thompson has a strong, graceful touch with the play’s physical vocabulary, deftly smoothing over potentially awkward transitions from present to past, from location to location, and from reality to dream. Ellen Cairns’s set helps enormously by lightly layering the natural world of the countryside—drystone walls, boulders, sky—over the solidly literal furniture of a farmhouse living room.
Although the play is affecting, it can also be frustrating. Playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein piles trauma upon trauma on this poor family to a point that almost defies belief. The farm fails due to the foot-and-mouth epidemic; the brothers betray each other; their father may have committed suicide; Bethan cheats on her fiance with his brother. There’s an incidental and somewhat baffling subplot about a severely burned patient of Bethan’s, also a wounded soldier, who has no ID and might in fact be an “enemy combatant” accidentally flown to a British hospital. I also found some of the choices of what to show onstage and what to elide between scenes a little arbitrary, especially the choice to skip immediately from the moment of Dai’s entrance straight to the wedding. It makes the wedding scene more harrowing, true, but also more implausible, as nothing about the lusty, romantic Bethan of the first part of the play explains why she stands by Dai.
Bethan in general is a much less well-developed character than the others. She’s set up as sort of a life-force—a caring nurse filled with lust and sensation—but this seems to me to be an ineffective metaphor overlaying a character who is shallow, thoughtless, and overwrought. She cheats on her fiance with his brother without a drop of remorse; she then rejects Rhys over and over until Dai returns crippled; she marries Dai and then leaves him almost immediately; and when we see her last she’s throwing herself at Rhys again. I wanted there to be more to her than her sexuality.
Although the play is flawed, its emotional core and Lichtenstein’s blazing passion for his material and his story make it work. It’s less about the war in Iraq, or even war in general, than the aftermath of war, the terrible damage a war thousands of miles away has done to a family. The world will be living with the aftermath of this conflict for many years to come. And as citizens of the nation most responsible for the war, I think we Americans, in particular, should see works like this, that give us a perspective different from our own. As hard as it sometimes is to watch The Pull of Negative Gravity, we dare not look away.