The Only Child
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 20, 2011
The Dramaturg's Note provided in the program for Jessica Hinds's new play The Only Child tells us that "buried beneath the violent and gruesome surface of the play, there was a fiercely beating heart—the heart of a child struggling to be loved by his parents." I suppose this is true, but the violent and gruesome surface is what stayed most with me after seeing this piece; I'd characterize it as squarely in the horror genre, because the situation that Hinds presents is so far removed from my own experience that I can only view it with the kind of suspended disbelief I'd apply to a Stephen King novel or a scary monster movie.
Because, although in some respects Asher and Myrna—the couple who are the main characters of The Only Child—seem to be ordinary folk like you and me, the thing we discover them to have perpetrated is anything but ordinary. I won't divulge more, but I will tell you that I wondered how Hinds happened to come up with the vile deeds that are at the root of her story. In any event, the couple's behavior when we meet them is certainly odd: they're silently eating lunch when there's a knock on the door. After the knock becomes a steady, insistent wrapping, they finally decide they'd better get the door. The person on the other side of it says his name is Hadley, and that he's a missionary; do they have a few minutes? Myrna seems eager to let him in while Asher is as anti-social as it's possible to be. Nonetheless, Hadley enters their remote home, and a quirky game of cat-and-mouse—one that will turn deadly serious before long—ensues.
The play is directed by Elizabeth Carlson. It's in three acts, and Carlson stages the transitions between the acts as weird little movement pieces as actors rearrange the scenic elements slightly and Jeff Pucillo (who plays Asher) switches shirts and combs or ruffles up his hair to indicate that his character is 20 years younger (in Act 2) or, again, 20 years older (in Act 3). These transitions are intoxicatingly effective.
Carlson and Hinds ask a great deal of their actors. Again, divulging specifics would be unfair, but suffice to say that Pucillo demonstrates startling powers of concentration and Ben Williams, who plays Hadley, is required to be naked for a long (and, to my mind, entirely unnecessary) period of time. (There is nothing remotely erotic about it, by the way.) Asta Hansen as Myrna rounds out the principal cast, with Kerry Malloy and young Logan Riley Bruner completing the ensemble; all do fine work.
But many of the things that the actors are called upon to do—in very close proximity to the audience, in a relatively intimate venue—detract from rather than enhance the storytelling. Movies are the venue for garish violence; the stage is better suited to psychological thrills. And now, again, I must be mum, lest I give away The Only Child's secrets.