Beneath the Hush, Whisper
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 25, 2011
I thought that Beneath the Hush, a Whisper was going to be about Dag Hammerskjold, the great United Nations Secretary General who made that organization into a force to be reckoned with in the 1950s. It is, however, actually the story of a deeply closeted gay man who must come to terms with his sexuality in a time (the '50s) when it was still against the law in his native country of the United Kingdom. Hammerskjold—rumored to have been gay, but there's no documentary evidence to prove it, as far as I can tell—is our protagonist's unlikely love interest and the catalyst for the important self-discovery that he undergoes in the play's second half.
A note in the press kit (but not in the program, where it should have been) assures us that Abigail Somma's play is a work of fiction. Though she tells us in a note (again, in the press kit but not the program) that Hammerskjold's poetry inspired her to write this play, I couldn't help but think that the man himself might better have been left out of it. The enigmatic sexuality of this famous actual person is the gigantic elephant in the room in this play, drawing focus continually from Somma's main point, which turns out to be what it might have been like, in that oh-so-recent and oh-so-different time, for a man with a promising career as a public servant to realize that a huge chunk of his life is a lie.
There are things to admire here, notably Greg Oliver Bodine's nuanced portrayal of the play's central figure, Stephen Harrison, along with a powerful but understated performance by Jed Dickson as Hammerskjold. Under the direction of Tom Herman, the play moves between scenes of these men at work at the UN and other scenes depicting the increasingly chaotic home life of Stephen, his wife Margaret, and his sister, Clara, who is visiting them in New York from London. But the play moves rather slowly, and a number of plot developments (will Hammerskjold be able to bring a peacekeeping force to the Middle East? what is the mysterious ailment that makes Clara wince in pain every so often?) ultimately feel like distractions from Somma's main—and very interesting and valuable—theme. Characters' use of vernacular from our own time also drew me away from her story repeatedly. (Would Harrison have asked Hammerskjold for "feedback" in 1957? I looked it up and this usage of the word is first noted in 1955, so I guess it's historically accurate; nonetheless it felt anachronistic in this context.) Somma is a first-time playwright, and she certainly has some good ideas to share with audiences in this piece, but I think the choice to make it feel like a documentary hurt the overall result.