“J’accuse?” It’s one of the first lines uttered in David Harrower’s layered play, Good With People, currently shining at 59E59 as part of its Brits Off Broadway festival. Those familiar with history will understand this statement’s implications of cruelty, equally apt in the time of writer Emile Zola in nineteenth century France as well as in the contemporary sleepy Scottish seaside town of Helensburgh, where Evan (Andrew Scott-Ramsay) has returned to stay at the barren inn run by Helen Hughes (Blythe Duff).
Helen, we soon learn, has reason to be cruel to Evan, although he needs to be reminded of why as much as the audience must be schooled in the explanation. This may not sound like a particularly sturdy basis for a piece of entertainment, but if I have described People as a modest show, please understand that there is nothing slight about this extraordinarily well-crafted play about small hopes and disconnected lives. Moreover, itt it is a production made all the more rewarding by director George Perrin’s perfectly attuned instinct for both story and his powerful acting duo’s sensibilities.
I’ll go ahead and explain. As a teenager, Evan was part of a more popular group of students that bullied Helen’s son, Jack (“Jack Hughes” was misinterpreted – or was it?! – as “J’accuse”). In one particular incident, the boys humiliated young Jack severely. But by revealing this initial connection, I have spoiled nothing in this show, presented by Scotland’s Traverse Theatre Company. Harrower, best known for the controversial Blackbird, provides the inverse of that show, in which a young woman (a girl) encounters the older man with whom she shares a poignant personal history. And in doing so, he again shines a light on the things that haunts us, questioning which sins are worthy of redemption and which are not.
Evan has returned to Helensburgh following a turn as a nurse in war-ridden Pakistan for the re-marriage of his two divorced parents, and has done so a bit worse for wear. He, too, has now suffered, victimized by terrorists in Pakistan. Helen has sunk into her own pit of despair and since a traumatized Jack has fled his childhood home, rejecting her house and (never-seen husband). And yet both characters in this two-hander soldier through hard times the way people generally do in life – by not talking about, and with humor, as can especially be seen in Harrower’s opening scene, when a rigid Helen refuses Evan early check-in to her clearly vacant lodging establishment.
Perrin’s staging of Harrower’s blueprint leaves is equal parts economical and elliptical. As both Evan and Helen retreat to places hidden in the corners of their own mind, we’re treated to further information from the past, explaining to us just how it nips at the present. And while People, conceivably, takes place in realistic fashion, it also works as a kind of dreamscape, thanks especially to Tim Deiling’s masterful lighting design and Scott Twynholm’s music and sound work. Ben Stones’ utile set design, like the show itself, also appears slim but reveals itself to be suggestive of a great deal more. And Perrin wrings great truth from the sublime Duff and Scott-Ramsay, two performers who give their all and still manage to give us something to mull over by play’s end. What’s a good trip if you don’t leave with a souvenir?
Good With People
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; www.59e59.org. Through April 21.
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