By Chris Stezin
Produced by Charter Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Plastic model body parts dangle from the ceiling in Chris Stezin’s Sleeping and Waking. The off-putting display is a constant reminder that the play’s protagonist, Sullivan, well played by Ian Le Valley, is the first successful full body transplant. Mind you, the play is set sixty years into the future when such biological feats matched the technological advances to make them a reality. “These are not my hands.” Sullivan says at the top of the show. Thus begins his quest, wrestling with questions about his own identity, his relationships, and even his faith, now that he’s attached to a different body.
Le Valley gives it his all, but his character Sullivan is one unlikable piece of work. He knows it and admits it to everyone around him-to his wife, nicely played by Susan Marie Rhea, who eventually leaves him, to his hilarious buddy Jerry, played with impeccable timing by Ray Ficca, and to his love interest Renee, performed with touching sincerity by Paige Hernandez. What do they all see in him? Renee’s first impression of him as “butt-face” is based on his acting like the doctors mistakenly attached his rear end for his head. He treats everyone with the same raging disdain, fueled by his own ambivalence about being alive in someone else’s body when cancer and malignancy destroyed his own. Even his own mother, played by Nicola Davis can’t admit that he made the right decision to undergo the procedure and though she doesn’t outright say it, probably considers him better off dead.
Yes, he’s a lonely, off -putting guy, a self admitted misanthrope who truly enjoys howling his head off, oops, sorry, yelling with abandon about how much he hates people, goading his friends and loved ones to abandon and leave him. And they do, for awhile, and then for some only-God-knows reason, they keep coming back! Even his wife, although they never had a peaceful go in the four years of his recuperation. Sullivan’s only saving grace is his connection with the audience as narrator of his tale. From the opening sequence when he invites us to look at our own hands, reminding us how normal and comfortable it is to be in our own skin, something he no longer is, Sullivan takes us into his head and even his own slowly softening heart.
All that to say, Sleeping and Waking is a tough sell, but it’s got some good things working for it-mainly, Director Keith Bridges, who sets up interesting tableaus and entrances moving the characters across the creative, multi-layered set, which he designed along with the playwright. Bridges sometimes has characters seated on the stage as observers when not in the scene, manifesting Sullivan’s interior imaginings and subconscious inner workings. Then there are the interesting philosophical questions that the play raises about life and death, the soul as a distinct aspect of the self, the body as a vessel, living life between “sleeping and waking,” and the role of faith.
Finally, the play explores relationships, even though the characters are more like sketch figures to serve as foil (sometimes fodder) for Sullivan. Still the scenes are playful and enjoyable to watch, especially the antics of his friend-for-life Jerry with his never ending array of home improvements. Hernandez as Renee provides some of the most tender moments in caring so much for him unconditionally that she’ll sleep on the hardwood floor to cuddle with him, helps him heal and blossom, and even stays and helps move furniture when his wife moves back in. They all surround him, this constellation of unconditional love and support, enduring his put-downs and testy banter when anyone else would be willing to rip his head off-oops, sorry again. But his anger is so unrelenting, that’s really what you want to do.
Chris Stezin has an intriguingly original voice as reflected in his previous Helen Hayes nominated works, Hoboken Station and what dogs do. In this play, while he resists making even one Frankenstein reference, in Sullivan, affectionately called “Sully,” he created his own monster, one just as flawed and hulking and menacing, but wrapped in social acceptance and normalcy. Sullivan’s journey to become human again takes awhile and by the time he gets there, he’s kind of worn out his welcome.
Sleeping and Waking plays through June 2nd. Showtimes: Thurs- Sunday 8pm, Saturday matinee at 3 pm, produced by Charter Theatre at Theater on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run in Arlington. For more information, call 202-333-7009 or visit the Charter website.