Silence proves a powerful device in Johnna Adams’ new play
By Doug Strassler
Of all the scenes that will emblazon themselves upon the heart, as many in Sans Merci, the deeply affecting new Johnna Adams play that just opened at the Fourth Street Theater, will, the one that lingers the most is a silent one. It’s an emotional excavation of sorts, as two women linked by a third, absent one, comb through Tracy, the missing woman’s, things. One is Tracy’s mother, Elizabeth (Susan Ferrara), sorting through a knapsack of personal items; the other, Kelly (Rachel Hip-Flores), is sorting Tracy’s clothes on the couch. And without saying a single word, Ferrara and Hip-Flores conduct one of the most moving duets to be found onstage.
Merci traces how the woman got to this point, at both the micro and macro level. College students Kelly and Tracy (a winning Alisha Spielmann) were traveling in a Colombian village to help the U’wa Indians organize against an American oil company when they were attacked. Tracy was killed, and Kelly was left to detail with brutal physical and emotional scarring. Several years hence, Elizabeth, struggling in her own way, has shown up – uninvited – on Kelly’s doorstep to have some questions answered.
What I love about Adams’s script is how often it avoids cliché. Elizabeth and Kelly don’t hold on to dialogue that might be delivered at a more climactic point, because that isn’t how human beings talk; instead, they say what they need to say in the moment. Merci is further helped by top-nothc direction from Heather Cohn, who has demonstrated in previous Flux Theatre Ensemble works an uncanny ability to work within the limited space and resources of Off-Off-Broadway without sacrificing the emotional arc of her story nor the professionalism of her richly talented cast.
All of which is assuredly on display in Merci, which, true to its title (derived Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”), does not hold back. In fact, even in the overwritten portions of the play, Cohn’s cast of three comes through. I wish Spielmann had a bit more flashback material with which Tracy could befriend and become intimate with Kelly, but she makes every moment count, allowing the audience to see this young, repressed girl’s eyes opening up to new worlds and possibilities. Hip-Flores is also strong and moving throughout, carefully navigating the play’s transitions between her younger, more carefree self and the older, grief- and guilt-stricken one locked in a tug-of-war with Elizabeth. Ferrara, meanwhile, is a revelation. Every moment of stillness is as rich as her every line of dialogue, which ache with hurt and a lack of understanding. (Janie Bullard’s sound design and Kia Rogers’ lighting design also help with establishing both mood and setting, of past and present.)
Merci – which ran for nearly two uninterrupted hours on the night I saw it – could stand a little trimming; Adams doesn’t always seem to trust her own audience to intuit the strength of Tracy and Kelly’s connection, even in death. But when this stark material works, it works wonders. Healing may be impossible, Merci says, but Adams’ script, and the masterful production Cohn has wrung from it, Cohn’s masterful production that comes from it, show what we need to hold on to in life to cope with loss.
Fourth Street Theatre, 83 East Fourth Street (between Bowery and Second Avenue). www.fluxtheatre.org
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