nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 27, 2007
Aisling Arts' Force trilogy is the best new American play of the season so far; I haven't been this caught up in or affected by a piece of theatre since Angels in America. The size and scope of the project contribute mightily to this: clocking in at 6-1/2 hours, in three parts, Force is indisputably epic in scale. (Kudos right now to conceivers Bryn Manion and Wendy Remington, and to the dedicated and talented 17-member cast.) It's a show that tackles big themes, too: nothing less than the essential human question of our place in a complicated world. Each of us seems so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet every move we make feels so tremendously important. How do we reconcile such a paradox?
It feels especially resonant in our post-9/11 world. On the one hand, we have an impulse to create, to be heard, to make a difference; on the other hand, confronted with mammoth catastrophes, either natural ones like Hurricane Katrina or manmade ones like Darfur, we wonder what any one person can actually accomplish, and retreat into comfort zones of safety and quiet. So it is with the characters we meet in Force, which is written and directed by Manion with such a wise and organic understanding of our shared humanity that over and over again I found myself reflecting on how very much like something in my own life was something said or shown on stage.
At the center of the play are a married couple, Jack and Anne Kavanaugh. Jack was a war correspondent in Kosovo during the Milosevic period; we never find out all that he witnessed and went through, but it was terrible enough to send him into a second career as a journalism professor in New York City. He's also the author of a best-selling book about his wartime experiences. Anne is an artist who has stopped making art; she's originally from Vermont and came to the big city to pursue her gift, but what she wants now more than anything is a child, and after two miscarriages she's looking at adoption as the solution. Jack doesn't want to adopt; but the differences between the two go deeper than that. Jack, fundamentally, is on a quest for the soul that he thinks he lost in Belgrade; he wants to leave the world better than he found it, but he's not sure how to do that anymore, or even if he can. Anne isn't interested in posterity or the big picture; she wants a husband who authentically communicates with and cares for her, and a family to tend and nurture.
Their marriage bond rests in a singular, almost magical circumstance that somehow gives it more potency and urgency than it might otherwise have. For the two of them met on a subway platform, quite by accident; except that each had dreamed of the other months before, on the very same night—the very same dream!—half a world away from one another.
The progress of the Kavanaughs' rocky relationship forms the arc of the play, but numerous other people drift in and out of their lives, offering contrast, commentary, or complication. Jack's flaky brother Brian, a biologist, accompanies Jack on a return trip to Kosovo; Brian's long lost love Cassie meets up with Jack on a New York park bench in one of those chance encounters that defy logic and coincidence. Anne's brother Rob, who was struck by lightning and suffers from memory loss as a result, falls in love with a woman named Sara whose car breaks down in front of his Vermont home. Anne's sister Claire tries to cope with the responsibilities of being mother to her new step-son, while Anne's brother Dan has an on-again/off-again relationship with the mother of his child, who has resisted marriage for some time now.
The narrative spins forward, but nonlinear digressions—flashbacks and flashforwards—dot the landscape. Connections of every variety—missed, unexpected, magical—abound in this play about how alike we all are under the skin, how much what we're looking for is the same as what everyone else is looking for. Rob has a dream that's exactly like something that happens to Brian; Sara and Dan talk to each other through Dan's stereo; a woman named Lotte disappears from her home one day and drifts in and out of the other characters' lives spectrally, like some half-remembered fragment of the past.
Manion creates these characters so vividly and honestly that it's impossible not to get caught up in all of their lives. There are three plays that comprise Force—Wanderlust, Threshold, and Convergence—and the writing is gorgeous; there's a scene in Wanderlust, for example, in which Anne and her three siblings reunite, that feels uncannily like a real family interacting in their dining room. Here's a sample from Convergence, Jack confiding in a brother he hasn't really spoken to in years:
I wanted to be an astronaut. Chuck Yeager. Yeager was never an astronaut. I don’t think I knew that when I was a kid. Maybe I did. I wasn’t stupid. Maybe the outer space part wasn’t what appealed to me. Maybe it was Yeager. The Yeagerness of Yeager. The respect without all the attention. The under the radar admiration. The skill. The daring. The dedication. He broke the sound barrier for Cripesake. Annie hates flying. A plane crashed in her backyard when she was a kid. A Cessna. Two people died, and her family’s dog caught fire. They had to put it to sleep.
Manion's staging looks simple but is meticulous and precise. There are just a few set pieces (chairs, tables, etc.), with the locales suggested by the vivid language, evocative lighting and soundscape, and the stage equivalent of driftwood (a chalkboard, some books and magazines piled here and there, postcards scattered around the floor) that suggest the world these people inhabit without having to indicate it.
The ensemble is uniformly strong. At the center of it all, in a towering performance, is Bradley Wells as Jack, full of contradictions and paradoxes as he makes his journey into himself to try to save himself and his marriage. (That he seems unaware that he's doing either of those things is tribute to Wells's brilliance here.) Angela Sommerfeld's Anne really comes into her own in Convergence, blossoming into a full-blooded woman trying to salvage a life that's gone wildly off track. Offering particularly outstanding support are Shawn Mahoney, whose portrayal of the brain-damaged Rob is at once heart-warming and heart-breaking; Sarah Stephens, who plays Jack's Serbian contact Eva as well as the "breathing coach" of a little girl who holds her breath for a living; Aaron Mathias, hugely convincing and likeable as Jack's brother Brian (Mathias and Wells have remarkable chemistry together, as well); Melissa Menzie as the enigmatic and almost completely silent Lotte; and R. Patrick Alberty, who plays Chairman David Kubrecski, Jack's student and off-kilter symbolic alter ego (he also functions as comic relief; Alberty is very funny in the role).
A quick disclaimer: Convergence is included in my upcoming anthology Plays and Playwrights 2007. But I would be saying everything I've said here whether or not that was the case.
Force is an extraordinary achievement. It can be seen on three separate evenings, or (the way I saw it) on a single day. If you have time for it, this is the way to experience this play: an immersive, involving, thrilling day of exquisite theatre. Either way, if you yearn for drama that's potent and meaningful, you really don't want to miss Force; there's nothing on stage in NYC right now with as much breadth and humanity.