How do we navigate our private and shared griefs? How do we buoy others up as we cope, and how do we drag them down? These are central questions in Kosovar playwright Doruntina Basha’s play The Finger, produced in English for the first time by Venus Theatre in the playwright’s self-translation. We bear witness to one day in the kitchenette where two women, mother-in-law Zoja (Amy Rhodes) and daughter-in-law Shkurta (Catherine Gilbert), carry out a ritual they have performed countless times across the past ten years since the disappearance of their shared love—a husband and son whose name never crosses their lips.
The Finger was originally commissioned for an audience of the children of families of people disappeared during the 1998–2000 conflict in Kosovo, during which over 13,000 people were killed or went missing. The conflict is a reservoir that ripples through the play, but is never referenced explicitly. Basha explains in her playwright’s note how her construction of the scenes “borrows documentary images from [her] research and blends them with the fantasy world of Shkurta and Zoja.” However, even without knowing that background, this story could play out in any home where two women are grappling with a common loss and the way it has warped their relationship.
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This play’s greatest strength is its visceral evocation of domestic claustrophobia. Amy Rhodes’s set delineates space with two hanging windows. The mooring of Venus Theatre’s stage in the middle of two seating areas heightens the fishbowl feeling. The kitchen table is too short for the actors, the chairs rock on lopsided legs, the suitcases dragged up from the cellar are oversized, and every prop reminds the characters that their environment is a bad fit. Shkurta and Zoja prepare a meal in real time, and the homey smell wafting through the theater paired with the discomfort between the two women calls attention to the way gendered caretaking rituals like cooking can trample the spirit as easily as nurture it.
The Finger closes October 13, 2019. Details and tickets
The story loops around Zoja and Shkurta’s longsuffering mutual dependence. Zoja, unhappily married off at age 14 and raised to measure her worth in her skills and productivity as a homemaker, begrudges Shkurta’s slow housework and individualistic belief in her right to have opinions and desires. This is not a play aimed at resolving a tension. It’s more interested in peeling the scabs off its wounds. That means we spend a lot of time listening to Zoja and Shkurta enact the same bitter argument, watching them languorously chop vegetables and fold clothes. It may make some viewers antsy, but the slow boil is necessary and, at its best, charts a subversive arc.
Still, I found myself wanting greater insight into these women’s inner lives beyond their sufferings and resentments. Zoja’s life is defined by her relationships to men who make her miserable—her abusive husband, her disappeared son, and the son-in-law who took her daughter far away from home—and she imposes this internalized oppression on her daughter-in-law. Rhodes’s performance is taut and gripping, but doesn’t hint at any possibility for joy in Zoja’s emotional vocabulary. We see one moment of levity between the women, and Shkurta is given an early scene in which she fantasizes about life in a city with appliances to cook and clean for her. Gilbert’s character seems to offer more opportunities for defiance and dream-life, but in this production, those characteristics are dimmed in the shadow of Shkurta’s consistent melodrama.
Venus Theatre prides itself on featuring circular and spiraling narratives: “Where male theatre embraces linear structures, the female iteration embrace[s] loops in echoes stemming from the experience of existing as a female person.” Take that phrasing’s gendered essentialism with a good helping of salt, but creating space for plays that veer off the linear path remains a powerful act. So, again—how do we navigate our private and shared griefs? The Finger provides few answers. That’s the point.
The Finger by Doruntina Basha, translated by Doruntina Basha. Directed by Deborah Randall. Featuring: Catherine Gilbert and Amy Rhodes. Costume and Props Designer: Deborah Randall. Light Designer: Kristin Thompson. Set Designer: Amy Rhodes. Sound Designer: Neil McFadden. Graphic Design: Laura Schreven. Reviewed by Hannah Berk.