You know this girl, this woman, this ghost. You met her in Galway, or in a small town in the Slieve Mish Mountains in County Kerry, or in Peoria — or in Bowie, or in Rwanda, or any place in which she exists — which is to say, all places. She is Irish; she is Polish; she is African-American. She is, perhaps, you.
You have seen her, not so much growing up as turning into. At eight, or ten or twelve, something pulls her away from her classmates, from their joys and frivolities (lacrosse, maybe) and back to the home that once nurtured her and from which, now, she can never flee. She will have a beginning, and she will have an end, but she will never have that joyous middle which becomes, for the rest of us, our stories. Bursting free of the sheltering home and relentlessly becoming ourselves is the happy birthright we share with all mammals, but she denies herself that birthright, and instead of bursting out, dries up and hardens, her life stillborn.
Samuel Beckett was many things — an absurdist, a master of dark humor, an obscurantist who mined the hidden meaning of symbols — but what he was first and foremost was an unsentimental poet of loneliness, and of the failure to love. Thus we see May (Nanna Ingvarsson), taking nine steps with metronome-like precision, pivoting, and taking nine equal steps in the opposite direction, as she has done for most of her life.
This is Footfalls, the first of three Beckett plays prepared for us by Ingvarsson and director Robert McNamara, and May is caring for her ancient mother (voiced by Nancy Robinette). Caring for is not the same as loving, and we can see the pain etched on May’s face as she goes through the litany of ministrations she volunteers to perform for her mother: “may I wipe your poor lips…bring you a bedpan…pray with you…pray for you.” (To each request her mother replies “yes, but it is too soon.”) No — it’s not pain on her face, but a certain deadness, and she delivers her offer in a monotone, as though drugged or under water.
The Beckett Trio
closes April 8, 2018
Details and tickets
In the second Act — the play is only 25 minutes long, but it has four Acts, and the third Act has four parts – The voice of May’s mother describes May, and her life. Although May is in her mid-forties, she sounds much older; and although her mother is eighty-nine or ninety (“I had you late in life. I’m sorry.”) she sounds much younger. She sounds, in fact, like a young mother, thirty-five or so, concerned about her daughter and the choices she made. She describes the moment that May abandoned her schoolmates while they were playing lacrosse (a curious choice for a play set in Ireland, although an excellent one for here) and came back home to demand that the carpet be torn out, so that she could hear herself pacing. Feeling it was not enough.
In the third Act, May tells her own story — but it is not her story. Instead it is the story of “she”, who somehow got through the locked door of the local Anglican Church, and there walked back and forth, up and down, in the shape of the crucifix. The story of “she” morphs somehow into the story of Mrs. Winter and her daughter Amy (the name, of course, is “May” with the vowel promoted). The thrust of this story is Amy’s insistence that she was not at an Evensong service that her mother insisted she was. The argument becomes sufficiently intense for us to question whether Amy, or May or “she” is, or was, anywhere at all, or whether her presence has become so ephemeral that she is no longer fully with us.
In the fourth Act — well, you’ll just have to see it.
A horrible thing has happened to May, but Beckett will not let us fall prey to sympathy or entertain fantasies of rescue, and neither will Ingvarsson. She is every moment both suffering and irredeemable; Faust after the fall; Don Juan in Hell. It is not an easy task to engage an audience in the portrayal of hope lost, but Beckett and Ingvarsson are up to the task.
May’s story is a particularized Hell, but in Rockaby, which closes the three-play set, Beckett addresses Hell in general. An elderly woman (Ingvarsson) gradually lowers her search for human connection, minute by minute. At first, she decides merely to stop going out; later she searches through her window for another person like her, sitting in another window; still later she is willing to settle for a raised blind in another window as a sign of life, and finally she retires to her mother’s rocker to wait for death, as her mother had before her. (The title recalls the ancient lullaby, which is also a song about violent death) She does not speak; instead, her voice comes (as it does in Krapp’s Last Tape) from a recorder. The recorder is a lively conversationalist, if a repetitive one. (“In the end came close of a long day…” each section begins) but the woman herself is not. She is silent. She has had done with us.
It is easy to think about this as a story about an old woman who, husband dead and children grown, has lost her purpose in life (Beckett said that the image of the woman provoked thoughts of his maternal grandmother, Annie Roe — even to the extent that the elaborate black dress, dictated by Beckett in his notes and worn by Ingvarsson, resembled the dress that Annie wore constantly). But it is also the great worry of everyone who is known by his function — lawyer, mother, deputy director — as he leaves that function. When he ceases to be that thing, will he be anything at all? Or will he rock, alone, on his chair?
Director Robert McNamara separates these two somber works with the riotous Not I, in which a disembodied human mouth screeches, cackles, orates and castigates, barely tolerating offstage interruptions so that it can tumble to its destination, wherever or whatever that is. She is telling the story of a woman, perhaps herself (though she denies it), now near seventy. Something bad happened to her (not rape, though the text seems to hint at it; Beckett denied that it was rape though he had no opinion about anything else in the play) and she has been mute most of her life– except for extraordinary outbursts, like the one we are hearing. There are some events but we are not clear what they are; there is some philosophy (mostly concerned with whether God is accountable for the suffering He causes) but its application to the story is uncertain. But understandable content is not the object here. Beckett once said that he hoped that the play would “work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect.”
In the production on opening night, it did. The stage was pitch black, except for a spotlight on Ingvarsson’s mouth, lips christened with fire-engine red lipstick. When the spotlight came on, she tore into the text immediately, at first quietly and then at full volume, the words tumbling out of her mouth with machine-gun speed and intensity. The astonished audience drew in its breath, the odd story registering slowly; when she shifted the narrative or responded to an unheard interruption barks of surprised laughter would rise from the crowd.
I do not know why McNamara matched this compulsive, convulsive narration with two works of such suppurating sadness (although the three playlets have been matched before) but one of the things that Not I does — in a way the other two don’t — is show off what a fabulous actor Ingvarsson is. Jessica Tandy, who first played the role, was defeated by the complexity and seeming randomness of the text and required the services of a teleprompter. Not so Ingvarsson, who grabs our attention with the first quiet rattle of words and holds us in a death-grip until she is done. Every syllable seems like a spontaneous utterance, compelled from her in the way that the salmon is compelled to swim upstream. She could be the Ancient Mariner, if her narrative had more and clearer intention.
This is a terrific production of some wonderful work. I say this provisionally; if you are new to Beckett and want to access him with your intellect, you should start with a good production of Endgame, rather than here. But if you want Beckett to work your nerves over, this is the place to be.
The Beckett Trio, consisting of Footfalls, Not I and Rockaby, by Samuel Beckett, directed by Robert McNamara, assisted by Solomon Haile Selaisse . Featuring Nanna Ingvarsson and Nancy Robinette . Set design by John D. Antone . Lighting design by Jonathan Alexander . Costume design by Sigrid Johannesdottir . Sound design by Denise Rose . Hannah Fogler and Artemis Lopez are the stage managers . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.