Sunday, May 30, 2010

This Wide Night

Edie Falco (photo: Carol Rosegg)

As she says in the program notes, playwright Chloe Moss based This Wide Night on women she met during a volunteering stint at Her Majesty’s Prison in the UK. Performed stories by or about women in prison have become their own genre, popularized in the US by Rhodessa Jones’s The Medea Project, for only one example, which has been studied by many scholars interested in how theatre and performance can be used to empower those without prospects or agency.

Fictionalized dramatic treatments of women presently or recently incarcerated include Marsha Norman’s play, Getting Out (1977). Norman’s pre-‘night, Mother drama concerns a young woman named Arlene's excruciating attempt at life post-rehabilitation. Her alter-ego, Arlie, haunts her life, representing her lack of constraint and conformity as a pre-reform hellion. Much of the play pivots around Arlie’s relationship with a prison guard determined to continue seeing her on the outside when Arlie/Arlene is released, which keeps her story tied to her life inside.

This Wide Night is different in kind. This elegant two-hander, produced by Naked Angels and mounted at Playwrights Horizons, is crafted as a drama that intends to use prison more metaphorically than plays like Norman's or devised performance like Jones's. In Moss's play, their stint as cellmates binds Lorraine (Edie Falco) and Marie (Allison Pill), but the story of their lives inside is revealed only glancingly, rather than becoming the play’s central focus, as it does in Getting Out. With this choice, Moss avoids the voyeurism that often propels plays (or films or television, for that matter—think of HBO’s Oz) about people in prison.

Instead, Moss uses the women’s reunion on the outside to think about the meaning of freedom, not just for those who’ve suffered its loss, but for anyone stymied by how to navigate a world they’re ill-equipped to survive. Lorraine and Marie’s differences provide much of the play’s conflict. Lorraine, middle-aged and determined to be optimistic, speaks a continuous patter of happy talk, taking to heart the adage that looking on the bright side lets you somehow live there. And yet the pain of what she’s lost, before and during her twelve-year prison sentence, creeps up on her and colors her expressions.

In Falco’s brilliant rendering, Lorraine’s face becomes practically transparent. Longing, doubt, and confusion cloud her aspect. Falco (famous from HBO’s The Soprano’s and now Showtime’s Nurse Jackie) is nearly unrecognizable in a wig of drab long hair of indistinguishable color, over-sized glasses whose ears she pushes over her hair instead of under, and a faded navy sweat shirt and baggy gray sweat pants. (The costumes, by designer Emily Rebholz, provide perfect punctuation to both actors’ performances.)

Marie looks as under-fed spiritually as she seems physically. Younger than Lorraine but more world-wise and world-weary, she appears to have already given up, an acquiescence to loss and despair that shows in her disheveled studio apartment and her slouching posture. Pill is a tall, willowy woman, but in the guise of Marie, her posture appears pock-marked, as though she’s already taken one hit too many to all the places that count.

The intense 80-minute, intermission-less play is set in a room that epitomizes the kind of existential despair the two women confront throughout This Wide Night. In set designer Rachel Hauck’s conception, the walls’ paint peels, its grimy color long since faded. The never-made bed sags when either of the women lie in it. The sink is filled with grimy dishes and the small square of mirror above it is clouded and chipped. The garbage underneath the sink spills out of the box in which Marie collects it and empty Marlboro packets lie crumpled nearby, as though Marie’s aim invariably fails.

The threadbare carpet offers no warmth or comfort. The single swiveling “easy” chair has long since lost its upholstery. And the ancient television set that sits in a corner of the floor gets only intermittent, fuzzy, rolling reception. The rusty bathroom, glimpsed through a door at the upper stage right quadrant of the set, throws a cold light that cuts angles of unflattering, unwelcomed illumination into the studio’s living space (Matt Frey’s lighting deftly makes visible the interrogatory nature of Lorraine and Marie’s lives). In such an environment, the designers and director Anne Kauffman seem to suggest, no one could thrive.

The play tracks Lorraine’s arrival at Marie’s apartment for an afternoon’s visit that winds up lasting for weeks or months through to her actual physical attempt to move out and on. Lorraine never really chooses to move in with her friend but can’t beat the inertia or find the agency required to leave. What happens between these women is less about action than it is about an arc of emotion that the actors trace with empathy and nuance, finding in these two characters the most universal themes in the most specific details of their lives.

Lorraine’s release from prison compels her to find Marie, the younger woman with whom she shared a cell during part of her longer sentence. Marie is diffident at first, her ambivalence about seeing Lorraine making her jumpy and reticent. She eventually admits that after her release, she stopped coming back to prison to visit Lorraine, even though she missed the older woman, because Marie realized during those meetings that she also missed prison. These brief direct confessions are few in This Wide Night; usually, the characters reveal their feelings and motivations through non-action, a clear choice to do and say almost nothing.

Eventually, Marie warms again to Lorraine, whose insistent ministrations are determined to recreate the intimacy they clearly shared behind bars. But here, in the supposedly free world, the women’s relationship remains syncopated—they can’t find a new groove, and the old one stays elusive and situation-dependent, bound to their common history of imprisonment.

The two women can’t really pull themselves back together. Instead of starting over, their lives have stopped. They feel most comfortable still confined, now to this studio bed-sit that’s clearly a lot like the prison cell they shared. They eat pizza and drink Budweiser, a menu that comes easily to hand for people who can’t afford real nourishment and survive on as little as possible. The room doesn’t even have a table; Marie and Lorraine share their pizza out of a box left on the floor and their beer directly from the can. You can practically see the roaches crawling through this apartment and the grit in the colorless carpet on which they often sit.

This Wide Night is in many ways a tone play. Moss envelopes Lorraine and Marie in a thick miasma of despair and indecision that they can’t see their way through. Lorraine medicates herself with an unnamed psychotropic drug. When she first downs a beer or two with Marie, her sensitive system can’t handle it and she vomits the pills and alcohol all over the already-stained carpet.

Lorraine’s constitution is weak, despite the bravado of her physical presence. In Falco’s virtuosic performance, Lorraine boasts a scatter-shot bodily bravado. Falco’s physical gesture has her sitting back on her pelvis and splaying her legs, hooking her thumbs up along the elastic waist of her sweat pants.

With this fabricated, hopeful but somehow pitiful stance, Lorraine tries to fill the new space around her, trying physically to inhabit her freedom. That she looks only gawky and awkward is part of the character’s supreme pathos. In one scene, Marie, who tends toward manic-depressive extremes of energy and emotion, suggests that they dance to the radio, and Lorraine, after hesitating for a short, embarrassed moment, throws herself into a gangly, goofy imitation of free-style movement, forcing her limbs to look loose and relaxed when they’re only stiff and stilted. The moment gets Falco a laugh, but it’s also incredibly painful, a physical demonstration of Lorraine’s inability to meet the challenges presented by being free.

Neither woman really fits into her now free body. Marie curls herself into the room’s single chair, her knees under her chin and her feet tucked into her bottom, peering out like a turtle debating if it’s safe to leave its shell. Marie can’t judge her relative safety. In fact, although she tells Lorraine that she works in a pub, over the course of the play it seems that Marie is turning tricks to survive. She services the landlord (an action intimated when she returns to the apartment to feverishly wipe her face and gargle with water over the sink) and eventually gets beat up, presumably by a trick. That Pill’s prettiness shows through Marie’s prematurely stooped and self-protective stance only makes the character’s despair that much more wrenching.

Inertia inspires Lorraine and Marie to settle into the uneasy, bumpy rhythm of an undefined life. As Marie eventually remarks, when she’s trying to hurt Lorraine by throwing her out of the flat, they’re not mother and daughter and they’re not lovers (Lorraine cringes when Marie uses the word). Their intimacy comes from being forced to share space, which fostered a connection between them that they can’t even describe or name. On the outside, Marie wields the power of the space and the lease, but Lorraine holds the power to care, an obscure notion on which Marie clearly can’t depend. She’s waiting to be abandoned again, as it appears her mother left her earlier in her life.

The women’s back-stories remain murky throughout the play, as if Moss insists that the details of their histories, their crimes, and their rehabilitation don’t really matter to how they’ll go forward in their lives. Moss does reveal that Lorraine killed someone, possibly her husband, and once out, she tries to connect with her now-grown son, Brian, who agrees to see her only once, out of curiosity, but refuses let her back into his life.

Time has closed over Lorraine. She tries to burrow back to the past—she carries around a worn sheet of children’s handwriting practice paper, on which six-year-old Brian wrote her a note. The message represents a shred of a past from which her own action forever separates her. The two women gradually realize that although their sentences have ended, time has stopped for them. There is no now, only a then that continues to entrap them.

Outside the studio’s window, Lorraine and Marie watch their neighbor comb the street with a Geiger counter. Although they don’t know what he’s looking for, they’re mesmerized by his determination to find something, to continue his quest. They watch him studiously, curious about what makes him strive. He becomes their only external example in a world that refuses to ease their way back in.

Kauffman’s direction honors Moss’s text by unobtrusively but decisively guiding these two fine actors through each moment. She doesn’t push the play to reveal more than it can, but allows each moment to find its shape in the characters’ inability to mold their lives back into place. The play’s transitions are marked by dissonant music by sound designer Rob Kaplowitz that comes to sound like the screech of time as it passes, regardless of what Marie or Lorraine do or don’t do.

Because the women don’t have the emotional or social or financial resources to propel themselves elsewhere, the room becomes an existential “no exit,” in which they’re bound to one another through fear as well as through longing for a future neither one of them can really imagine. Even the television, their only benign connection to the world, doesn’t get a good signal. Propped against the stage left wall, the small old fashioned cathode-ray tube set broadcasts a picture that rolls, full of static and barely discernible images in blurred colors with hints of words scrolling across the screen. Although Lorraine eventually remarks that she’s getting good at watching without sound or a coherent picture, even the solace of escape or fantasy that television normally provides isn’t available to these women.

The one-room apartment becomes just a slightly enlarged version of the prison cell Lorraine and Marie shared. More is at hand to fill the space, but they don’t know what to do with all these objects. The detritus piles up around them—they have no sense of “out” (as in take out the garbage or throw out what you’ve used and no longer need). Everything accumulates within, both emotionally and physically. The women have no outlet for their fear, their anger, or their frustrations.

Instead, the world enacts its violence on them. Marie leaves the studio physically but never emotionally. She doesn’t bring anything back with her until the end, when she returns cut and bruised, wearing the external marks of the outside. Lorraine understands that Marie knows the person who beat her up. And Moss implies that Marie was in an abusive relationship before her prison stint. But nothing can be done to protect her, because even free, Marie is at the mercy of a system that imprisons her much as she was in jail.

Even Lorraine, whose awkward, jerking movements represent a woman desperately trying to embody what she thinks freedom means, hasn’t a clue how to remake her life. Lorraine is so accustomed to the regimentation of prison life that she gets hungry precisely at 5:30, when dinner was served inside. Marie is her life preserver, but she clings to her only to float through still-perilous waters. Neither woman will be able to reach land, nor will they be rescued by some passing form of virtue or understanding. Lorraine and Marie are among the forgotten, formerly institutionalized women for whom a world not bound by four confining walls is impenetrable, unreadable, and utterly uninhabitable.

How nice to see a play written, directed, and performed by women. How nice to see a play that doesn’t need to be framed or redeemed by a heterosexual love story. How nice to see a middle-aged woman in a complex, compelling leading role. How nice to see a play that doesn’t wrap up its story with colored paper and a bow, but instead leaves you thoughtful, wondering what it means to be free and aware of the word’s the innumerable definitions.

How nice to watch a production in Playwrights Horizon’s Peter Sharp Theatre, where the house’s intimacy brings you physically close to This Wide Night’s performers and emotionally close to the characters. How provoking to watch a production that depicts so viscerally the wages of poverty and the lack of options for women like Lorraine and Marie.

This Wide Night is at once excruciating in the finitude of Lorraine and Marie’s prospects, and strangely hopeful, as you leave the play wanting to believe that at least these women have one another. Still, as they end the play staring out the window at the man with his Geiger counter, they’re framed within the window’s bars as imprisoned as they ever were and, sadly, probably, always will be.

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Good Wife, Redux

Kalinda at work

The Good Wife finishes out the season next week with a finale that promises to launch Peter Florrick (Chris Noth) back into the center of corrupt Chicago power, while Alicia (Julianna Margulies), his very good wife indeed, suffers her own moral turmoil over using her husband’s connections to bring clients to her money-hemorrhaging law firm, Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner, where she’s just secured her future as a junior associate.

With Margulies in the lead, and the still terrific Archie Punjabi refining her role as Kalinda, the ace investigator with a rather mysterious personal back-story, The Good Wife continues to offer one of television’s more captivating representations of a middle-aged woman with complicated desires and a real job at which she excels.

The series does a good job exploring, from women’s perspectives, the murky ethical complications of the law and politics (personal and public). Peter Florrick serves as the anchoring amoral, self-serving, grandly ambitious politician and Alicia as his morally righteous counterweight, but the series increasing muddies the waters of Alicia’s purity, placing her in situations that clarify how difficult it is to keep your hands clean, especially when they’re in close proximity to money and power.

In her competition with the Boy Wonder, Cary (Matt Czuchry) for the single junior associate position Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner can afford, for instance, the writers show the cut-throat young white boy overtly campaigning among the other associates, talking Alicia down (she’s too old, too female, and too soft for a tough man’s job, he says) among the sinks and urinals of the firm’s men’s room. But if Cary’s ambition follows the well established capillaries of the good ole boys’ network, Alicia’s bid for the firm’s favor takes her into even murkier territory, in which trading favors with her husband’s handler, Eli Gold (played with subtle and controlled irony and wit by an increasingly appealing Alan Cummings), lands her clients that make her invaluable to the senior partners.

When Cary fails to get the nod for the permanent position, all of his erstwhile good will toward Alicia evaporates, leaving him only with the white male privilege and entitlement that he held in good-natured check while he worked alongside her. Pale with anger at his dismissal from the firm, he accuses Alicia of using her personal connections to advance her cause. And although Cary’s return to always available sexism and ageism makes the once likable character instantly appalling, it’s hard to say he’s wrong. Alicia has indeed finally used her proximity to Peter in ways she resisted throughout the season, now sliding along the slippery slope of political machinations she used to view with clear distaste.

In a demonstration of the power of the new girls’ network, in fact, it’s Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), one of the two chief partners at Stern, Lockhart, and Gardner, who encourages Alicia to mine Peter’s connections to prove her usefulness to the firm. Alicia, the theoretically good wife, has insisted on holding herself aloof from Peter’s problems and the possibilities his connections present, as though she’s not already dirty by association. When she capitulates to Diane’s suggestion, Alicia doesn’t even seem to suffer ethical qualms. Eli Gold’s 11th hour support allows Alicia to keep her job at the firm.

What seems in question as the season finale approaches is whether or not Alicia really can maintain her role as the good wife. Peter’s mother, who’s provided the conservative counterpart to Alicia’s modern, even feminist working mom throughout the season, keeps reminding her daughter-in-law that to be a good wife means to support your husband regardless of your own feelings or ideas. As soon as Peter’s electronic monitoring device is removed, securing his full personal and political freedom, he returns to his influence-mongering, wheeling and dealing ways, glad-handing the powerful who’ve gathered at his home to congratulate him, as his wife, son, and daughter watch from a distance, wondering whether or not they’re glad that he’s back in their lives without restrictions.

When Peter beckons to Alicia to join him at the party, she hesitates, and then walks slowly into his orbit, where he introduces her to two authoritative white men looking for a new law firm, whom he says are from the AFL-CIO. The episode ends on a shot of Alicia grasping hands with one of these gentlemen, symbolically underlining her own willingness to get her hands dirty, and Peter’s willingness to buy her personal loyalty with his political connections.

Unfortunately, while she proves herself more than capable professionally every week, Alicia’s competency as a lawyer gets muddled by her attraction to her boss, Will (Josh Charles), whom she knew in law school and who took a risk by giving her the job when Peter went to prison. The Good Wife would be so much more interesting if it avoided the romantic angle all together, instead of letting snarky Cary be half right when he accuses Alicia of benefiting from the sexual energy between her and Will. The couple’s as yet unconsummated affair is only interesting because Alicia uses it to lord some power over Peter, who’s astonished that Alicia won’t simply forgive his own entirely public sexual peccadilloes and return happily to his bed. Watching Alicia flaunt her sexual independence from Peter has been one of the season’s pleasures.

In last night’s episode (#22, “Hybristophilia”), Kalinda insists Alicia celebrate keeping her job as a junior associate by taking her out for multiple shots of liquor. As the two women get increasingly drunk, Alicia asks Kalinda point-blank if she’s “gay” (why can’t anyone on television say the word “lesbian”?). The juicy moment makes textual what the series has hinted at but never verified. Kalinda’s had her share of electric moments with women, who flirt with her and sometimes even try to seduce her. But we’ve also seen Kalinda trading sexual favors with a local detective to get important information relevant to her cases. Is Kalinda a lesbian, or just a woman willing to use any means possible to get what she needs? And does that make her ethically suspect? Or less powerful and full of what often looks like feminist agency?

Kalinda dodges Alicia’s question at the bar, coyly insisting she likes to keep her own life private and that her sexual preference doesn’t really matter. And it doesn’t—Kalinda remains sexy and alluring probably for spectators across gender, because of the character’s cheeky brilliance and Punjabi’s charisma (and, okay, her body). It’s fun to speculate about for which team she bats, but it doesn’t really matter, to the plot or to the pleasure of watching the character operate.

Is this the season of incidental lesbianism on television? The L Word is no longer on Showtime, but it seems every time I watch something, another lesbian couple or reference pops up. I’m no longer a fan of Grey’s Anatomy, but flipping through the channels a week or so ago, I wound up catching an episode in which Callie (Sara Ramirez) openly flirts with a female patient at the hospital, who’s forward enough to write her phone number on Callie’s palm. In the same episode, Callie breaks up with her girlfriend, Arizona (Jessica Capshaw), because Callie wants to have a baby and Arizona doesn’t. And mind you, this wasn’t an episode about lesbians; this was just part of the on-going story of two of the show’s recurring, central characters.

And on Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, which I do watch and enjoy regularly, Dr. O’Hara (the inimitable Eve Best) turns out to have had an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman, Sarah Khouri (Julia Ormond), a famous television journalist. Although the story arc is brief, it begins when Dr. O’Hara has a quickie with the too-sober All Saints nurse, Sam (Arjun Gupta), who protests, as they begin kissing frantically, that he has a girlfriend, to which Dr. O’Hara responds, “So do I.” When O’Hara’s relationship with the tv reporter sours, Jackie, who’s been something of an eager, willing witness to the two women’s affair, tells O’Hara she never really liked Sarah, and that she prefers being O’Hara’s “girl.”

Finding lesbian feelings, relationships, or characters peppered across the television spectrum still seems to me a wondrous thing. When I’m feeling optimistic, I have to think it signals an opening of options for women, representations of new choices we might make for ourselves as not just sexual beings, but as people who want certain kinds of relationships, and professions, and families, which may or may not be conventional, regardless of the gender of our partners.

And that’s a good thing.

The Feminist Spectator