Loss is the theme that unites the two one act plays in the Shaw Festival’s lunch time program—loss of life, loss of sanity, loss of relationship, loss of friendship. The main characters in Eugene O’Neill’s Wife for a Life and Susan Glaspell’s Trifles struggle to survive when things they value are taken away from them, and they are haunted by the regret of what they could have done. Photo courtesy of Michael Cooper
Could Mrs. Hale played by Julain Molnar have saved her childhood friend from marrying the wrong man or convinced her to leave him when times got rough? Could the Older Man played by Benedict Campbell have convinced his wife to stay with him in spite of her attraction to a younger man?
Director Meg Roe ties the one-acts together with a haunting and symbolic thread. The ominous humming of the cast as they flit mindlessly across the stage, like buzzing bees, before the performance begins, and between plays, places the viewers inside a dilapidated farmhouse on a lazy afternoon when the air is still and the fire has grown cold.
The rugged, earthy and austere kitchen designed by Camellia Koo dominates the landscape and a deathly palour falls across the theatre. The set doesn’t change. The actors don’t change. The two plays continue as if they were one. And indeed, they are in content and focus.
It is impossible not to be spellbound. The deep suffering of the main characters and their inability to alleviate their circumstances keeps the audience holding its breath. Both plays are about choices and losses. Both characters are tortured by regret—the kind of regret that makes up ordinary human life. Both Molnar and Campbell have done a phenomenal job of conveying deep passion and delivering difficult monologues.
One must feel sympathy for the farm wife who failed to help a friend or the miner who could not communicate with his wife. How many of us have failed to act when we knew we should— falling short of whom e we would like to be?
While dialogue dominates O’Neill’s play, it’s the trifles—seemingly insignificant objects—that grab the attention in Glaspell’s. These often overlooked details reveal the essence of a woman’s life—her joys, her desires, her pain—a quilt, an empty birdcage, a bird with a broken neck—these are the things that unravel a mystery. While the men float about the stage, talking loudly, making jokes and searching for obvious clues, the women discover secrets in their silent musings. The broken dialogue reveals much more than just a flood of words . The images say it all—subtly and powerfully.
While the direction places us sensually and expermentially inside the dramas, the playwrights force us to face eternal questions. The questions don’t stop with the dialogue. They remain in the memory and the imagination long after the plays have ended.
Trifles is playing at the Court House Theatre until Oct. 12th.