What is worse – the worry of having a loved one in a distant war or the pain of dealing with his return, crippled both physically and emotionally? Both situations are experienced by the characters in The Pull of Negative Gravity, a dark but gutsy choice as the inaugural production of the Welders Theatre Company. It is a powerful and haunting work, one that this reviewer won’t soon forget.
At the start of the play, Dai (Tyler Herman) has already enlisted in the British army and gone to the Iraq conflict in an effort to save his family’s Welsh homestead. The family’s desperate situation is aggravated by the apparent suicide of the father by drowning. Dai left behind his widowed mother Vi (Susan Lynskey), his brother Rhys (Louis Lavoie), and his girlfriend Bethan (Julia Morrissey).
Bethan is a sweet yet earthy girl who works as a nurse in a burn unit where the patients are so badly injured that DNA is needed to determine their identities. She is lovesick over her separation from Dai (“All I want is to wake up in the morning and touch his face.”) Bethan only finds joy when dancing to the sounds of returning helicopters, each of which might be the one that brings him home.
Vi does her best to comfort Bethan (“I wish I could make you happy”) while stuffing her own pain inside as she stuffs envelopes to make some badly needed money. (The fact that the scratch cards Vi mails out as a marketing tool are all losers is an obvious piece of symbolism for her life.)
Rhys is conflicted by the fact that his brother Dai went away and not him, as well as by his longing for Bethan. In the aftermath of an impulsive one-time fling, Rhys has fallen strongly in love with her, as his worried mother Vi deduces.
The initial reports of Dai’s minor injuries prove to be a gross understatement. He returns paralyzed on his right side, resembling a stroke patient. He can only sputter out a few words at a time, revealing a young man deeply damaged in every way. Tyler Herman handles both Dai’s physical and emotional challenges impressively, and both Lavoie and Morrissey turn in believable performances.
Yet the true dramatic center of the play is Susan Lynskey’s wonderfully skilled portrayal of Vi desperately trying to hold her family together. Linskey’s Vi is multi-layered, and played with touching depth: an outwardly strong woman, she balances longing and anger for her departed husband, concern over Bethan and her sons, and the pain that accompanies Dai’s return. Lynskey’s nuanced portrayal has a rare gravity that makes it one of the finest performances I have witnessed this year.
Jonathan Lichtenstein’s play, first presented at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is not without flaws. The audience is challenged by the elliptical nature of the script, which jumps from scene to scene and from monologues to flashbacks. The story is a little crowded and some of the strings being pulled are a little obvious.
Yet once the audience settles into the story, it fully engages them in the heart-rending fates of these four characters. While many post-Iraq plays are plagued by polemics or contrivances, The Pull of Negative Gravity is a rare success. The drama has both a strong sense of place and a universal story. Director JoJo Ruf helps ensure that the story is anchored by well-drawn characters demonstrating credible emotions while in the grip of a deeply tragic situation.
Cellist Tom Zebovitz’s expressive performance helps underscore some of the play’s emotions, including a few scenes that lack any dialogue at all.
A play about a returning Iraq veteran may not be your idea of summer entertainment. If you do take the time to experience the Welder Theatre Company’s excellent production of The Pull of Negative Gravity, it will give a stronger understanding of the difficulties of post-trauma life than any experience short of visiting a veterans’ hospital.
The Pull of Negative Gravity
By Jonathan Lichtenstein
Directed by JoJo Ruf
Produced by The Welders Theatre Company
Reviewed by Steven McKnight
The Pull of Negative Gravity runs thru July 10, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
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