The secret to writing a play which grabs you by the heart is to ask a narrative question and then answer it at precisely the right moment. Answer it too quickly, and you have a story which deflates like a badly-made cake, leaving the characters in a morass of recrimination and explanation. Take too long to answer, and you have…Static, a play full of ambition and possibility which takes far too long to get where it’s going.
And what is the narrative question here? Roughly, it’s what the heck is going on? Emma (Amy Horan), a young woman who is in the process of closing her late father’s estate, has discovered that he owned a notorious house — one previously owned by the eccentric couple Walter and Millie (Keith Richards — no, not that one — and Megan Reichelt). Walter and Millie collected objects — erasers, shirt buttons, butter knives and the like. They were too organized to be considered hoarders, but it was way too obsessive to be considered a mere hobby. In addition, Walter collected sounds, and preserved them with a cassette recorder. He also recorded the events of the day, in the manner of Krapp’s Last Tape. For her part, Millie was silent — not mute (as far as we can tell) or physically damaged in any way. She simply refused to speak.
Oh — and this: they burned themselves to death in a fire which, miraculously, confined itself to their bedroom.
Emma dispatches her fiancée (Dylan Jackson, occasionally overwrought) back to their home and resolves to make this odd place ready for sale. This requires her to in some way dispose of the enormous collection of stuff. But she finds a distraction which changes her priorities: a collection of Walter’s cassettes, and a cassette tape player.
Scenes of Emma listening to the tapes are intercut with scenes of Walter making them. Thus we listen to Walter recording the washing machine, Walter recording an electric fan, and Walter recording the wind at least twice. On days of particular significance — such as the day Millie walked into the room and found a music box missing — we experience the action repeated several times, both live and on tape.
The problem is, this isn’t really action. The stakes simply aren’t high enough. The music box should be the least of concerns for Millie, who wanders through the house, usually in her nightgown, in a depressed fugue. Walter, who frets about fixing the music box, brings Millie a toy piano he thinks she’ll like, and throws birthday parties for neighborhood kids (Lottie Doughty does good work as one of them), ignores the only big problem he really has: that his wife appears to be deeply psychotic.
In a suspense story — a ghost story, for example, such as the one Static aspires to be — the audience is alive to danger at every moment, fully aware of the possibility that something could go wrong. Not so here. Part of the problem is that as playwright Tom Horan (no relation to Amy) writes him, and as director Bridget Grace Sheaff and Richards make him appear on stage, Walter is a sweet, caring and gentle man, a Mr. Fix-It with a heart. He is supremely protective of his wife (although it is a complete mystery why he hasn’t secured medical help for her) and it seems obvious that he cannot be the source of any harm. Millie seems incapable of doing deliberate harm and Walter watches her too closely for her to do much accidental damage. And, in any event, Emma is separated from them by more than a decade.
closes July 3, 2016
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When the payoff comes, it’s a good one, tying up many (but not all) of the story’s loose ends, and providing a powerful wallop. Much of this has to do with the terrific performances given by Richards and particularly Amy Horan in the final moments, but also in how Tom Horan has crafted the ending, which takes advantage not only of the tapes but of Millie’s muteness. It’s an extremely satisfactory conclusion, and if you’re like me, you’ll leave the theater revivified, and in a forgiving mood toward the tedium that went before.
As usual at the Source Festival, the technical elements in Static are good, and set designer Klyph Stanford deserves particular mention for putting together a set which, with minor adjustments, is used for all three full-length plays. In the production I saw, the sound cues were off, mostly to the disadvantage of Richards, who reacted in a very professional way to his unexpected challenges.
Static by Tom Horan . Directed by Bridget Grace Sheaff . Featuring Keith Richards, Megan Reichelt, Amy Horan, Dylan Jackson, and Charlotte “Lottie” Doughty. Set design: Klyph Stanford . Costume design: Kara Walla . Lighting design: Mary Keegan . Sound design: Gordon Nimmo-Smith . Production stage manager: Lisa Blythe . Rehearsal stage manager: Carmen Livesay . Produced by CulturalDC Source Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.