Bathsheba Doran’s lovely new play is a meditation on community and the unlikely ways in which it forms and dissolves across time. With a light touch and moving, smart insights, Doran paints a series of vignettes that illustrate how despite the fundamental ambivalence with which we make our collective way through our lives, our sometimes unlikely connections with one another can be real and sustaining.
Anna (Kristen Bush) glues together a disparate group of quirky characters. At the play’s opening, she’s a grad student in English at Columbia working on a thesis about punctuation in Keats. She sits silently, withstanding the harangue of Simon (Matthew Rauch), a male professor with whom she’s had what appears to have been a casual affair. He’s breaking it off with all the pompous ego-centricity of an over-educated, over-privileged, too-cool white man. (Doran did her MFA at Columbia, and observes the peculiarities of academic practices with droll humor throughout Kin.)
In Anna’s next scene, she moves from Simon to Helena (played by the galvanizing, terrific Laura Heisler), her oldest friend, a mostly out of work actor who’s devastated by the death of her dog, with whom she’s clearly had her longest, most important emotional relationship. The two women bury the poor animal together at night in the park, even though Helena knows that the city forbids such interments. The scene is both funny and poignant, and sets the dual tone on which Doran balances Kin’s emotional quotient throughout.
In a parallel universe that soon connects with Anna’s, Sean (Patch Darragh), an Ireland-born personal trainer, speaks by phone to his mother, Linda (played by the wonderful Suzanne Bertish), back home. He’s broken up with a girlfriend who turned out to be a drug addict, and Linda is house-bound, agoraphobic because she was raped many years ago by the murky figure she calls the “man in the mist,” who’s never been identified or prosecuted.
Matched up by an on-line service, Anna and Sean begin to date, and Doran intertwines their very different lives in surprising, never predictable ways. Each character is drawn with confident, clear, and compelling attributes but with little elaborate psychology. Doran provides some back-story—Anna’s mother died of cancer when she was a teenager; her father, Adam (Cotter Smith), is a military man with professional and personal secrets that keep him and his daughter estranged; neurotic Helena’s mother is a psychiatrist. But we learn these details by accretion rather than through exposition, because what motivates Doran’s characters isn’t as important as the choices they make in the play’s present.
All of the characters change across the arc of the play in ways that seem hopeful without being facile or trite, and although Anna is central to the group’s relationships, her trajectory is ultimately one among many. Sean thinks Helena is crazy, then begins to feel real affection for her; Anna finds her dead mother’s diary and realizes that her parents were never happy; Sean wonders if he loves Anna and remains emotionally preoccupied with Rachel (Molly Ward), his drug-addicted ex.
When he first finds out about his daughter’s relationship, Adam scoffs to Kay (Kit Flanagan), his secret lover, that Sean will never amount to anything. But he comes to respect Sean, to see his goodness, and to understand what the young man brings to his daughter. Anna never meets Kay, who sees Anna’s picture for the first time on the cover of her book, even though Kay has mothered Anna, unacknowledged and unknown, from a distance for most of Anna’s life.
Adam’s secret relationship with Kay stands in for the wealth of what we don’t know about one another. Relationships, Kin suggests, are risks we take based on the tiny bits of knowledge we’re able to gather, confronted with how finally unfathomable we are to one another, yet how inevitably tied. Our connections are tenuous and attenuated, but they persist.
Helena, to whom Doran assigns the funniest lines and the most outrageous traits, seems poised on the brink of disaster throughout the play. She cries frequently and easily, sometimes for cause, sometimes not, and her career as an actor is minor at best. She dreams of a ward of children who’ve tried to commit suicide, and sees herself among them. But instead of ending her life, Helena begins it again by moving to North Carolina, where a confrontation with another animal provides the epiphany she needs to reboot her emotions.
Doran and director Sam Gold provide a hysterical spin on The Winter’s Tale’s famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear,” in a scene that provokes not only laughter, but admiration for Doran’s ability to craft a scene with such delicious theatricality and such moving sensitivity.
No prefabricated, falsely cataclysmic pathways open for these characters. Instead, Doran observes them making ambivalent but sustaining and transforming choices that change them by accretion, over time. On a very simple set that uses moveable pieces to frame the action, the most salient décor is the clocks that actors place on the walls, not to tell the time, but to remind us that time is the element in which we act. Time passes, as it does in Kin, in ways that we’re surprised to mark, in ways that bring us closer together and draw us apart less by agency than by the simple accumulation of hours, days, and years.
As Kin progresses (in under two hours with no intermission), Anna gets her PhD, writes a book, and gets tenure, but none of these events are as determining as what she learns about herself in relationship to the others. That self-knowledge isn’t delivered in big scenes with long, self-explanatory monologues, but in the way Doran and Gold establish the simple on-going project of her life. The play’s events are crafted through the characters’ commitment to one another, despite the essential, hovering doubt that infuses their interactions, much like the mist that obscures Sean and Anna’s wedding on the cliffs in Ireland at the play’s end.
For example, schooled by more conventional realism, we expect that Linda will undergo some profound catharsis that will exorcise the trauma of her rape. She finally does move outside to sit on the stoop of her house with Anna, and in the end, walks to the very cliffs where the rape took place to attend her son’s wedding.
But when Linda finally ends her self-imprisonment, Doran doesn’t herald the moment as a blaring triumph. The playwright presents it instead as an understated, simple movement forward. Linda’s liberation comes from the Xanax Anna supplies, and from the supportive arm Adam offers when it comes time to attend to the wedding ceremony. Doran suggests that great emotional revelations aren’t as important as the simple ways in which we help one another get through—with a pill or an arm that makes unexpected progress possible.
That the story culminates in a (heterosexual) marriage should make it seem conservative, but instead, the event seems less about the couple and more about the fragile but committed community that surrounds them. All the principals gather upstage, in a terrifically executed rainfall and cold mist that billows out into the first rows of the audience. As rain drenches the dearly beloved, Helena officiates, shouting against the weather that she’s not present in a religious capacity, but as a witness.
Linda stands beside Adam, revisiting for the first time the site of her own rape to observe her son’s marriage. Despite how momentous her presence is, Doran doesn’t focus the scene on Linda. But her attendance at the wedding underlines that change is fundamentally possible, that we can return to the scene of a crime and revise what that place means, that we can stand in it differently and reorient ourselves to our pasts and our futures.
Sean and Anna’s wedding isn’t inevitable in Kin. Both characters wonder if they should leave the relationship. Sean visits Rachel to see if the emotions he imagines still exist, and finds her already married, sober, and rather empty, unable to recall any of what must have been their old feeling. Anna confides in Helena that she feels alone even when she’s beside Sean, and thinks about leaving him.
Yet they do marry, not because they’re settling for less, but because Kin suggests that though doubt is a fundamental condition of our lives, it doesn’t prevent us from living. All the characters endure some sort of emotional damage that complicates their responses and relationships, but in Doran’s hands, their baggage isn’t predictive or fundamental, but only emotions that they carry along and move through, as time passes.
Kin is structured around two- or three-character exchanges until the very end, when the assembled community gathers for the wedding. The intimate style of those small scenes demonstrates Doran’s facility with language, her ear for how people talk to one another, garnished with a poet’s sense of how the content of what we say draws on a well of feeling that’s often expressed indirectly, metaphorically.
Gold directed Circle Mirror Transformation and Aliens, both written by Annie Baker, whose plays resemble Doran’s in their attention to tiny human interactions and the threads of relationships that make up lives and emotional communities. He directs Kin with a strong but simple visual style and deep emotional understanding. This is an actor’s play, which Gold and designers Paul Steinberg (set) and Jane Cox (lights) frame gracefully to highlight the characters’ connections.
Occasionally, when a scene ends, the actors who just performed remain on the set in a half-light to watch the next scene. Doran and Gold offer these moments of silent witnessing, of characters (or actors) just being there for one another, watching their lives unfold across time, perhaps to illustrate the wordless support we bring to our relationships just by staying connected.
Gold’s exquisite direction trusts the ensemble of talented actors to convey the script’s nuances. The set, which the actors move into its various configurations, shows us as if through a picture frame how we capture, if not memorialize, moments in our lives. The set’s predominating clocks seem to underline our passage onward and our sometimes perplexing faith that simply moving through time and space will lead us somewhere, however unexpected, however surprising.
Life, Kin tells us, is never perfect, but can be very good. After their wedding, Sean unexpectedly exclaims to Anna, “I hope we don’t die,” and she says, gently, “We won’t, not for a very long time.” The simple exchange crystalizes our continual surprise at the preciousness and fragility of our lives. The play ends on a note of hope, with a warm faith that by extending our kinship, we sustain ourselves.
The Feminist Spectator
Kin, by Bathsheba Doran, directed by Sam Gold, Playwrights Horizons, March 18, 2011.