Setting controls a play.
It’s its backbone.
This is particularly true when the setting contains an entire plot within a singular space. Also, particularly true when the audience feels forced into it, packed into the confined atmosphere that’s suddenly been created.
This describes the claustrophobia and intimacy of Lights Out, Pittsburgh Playwright’s exhibition of Pittsburgh writer Steve Hallock and Director Cheryl El-Walker’s care, coldness and warmth while capturing a particular setting.
A bunch of anybodys are caught on a train under Mt. Washington. Suddenly, their lives begin to mesh because they can’t help but share things about themselves. This mutates into empathy, projection, and blame.
“It offers a unique and artful look at Pittsburgh life” says Mark Clayton Southers, Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Artistic and Executive Director. And remember, the lights are out for the audience too. They become part of this, stuck in this dilemma-facing world, as well. Distracted people carry their baggage onto a train concealed. But what happens when the transience becomes semi-permanence. Suddenly, you’re in a room. When the train stops, everyone suddenly looks at the situation (and everyone else) closely.
What if people combusted into their stories like colorful bouts of expression poured out from the anxiety of being trapped? What is the threshold for anxiety in this situation? How does one deal with an annoying passenger? How does one manage grief that suddenly creeps into the mind? Or the emotions of an actively failing relationship? Or even the randiness of a brand new one!
They look like anybodys, but with a smidgen of focus you begin to unravel searching, human souls. It’s like watching the interactions come forward from an Edward Hopper painting. These people are haunted.
Sandy Zwier’s Florence along with John Michnya’s Stanley speak to their significant others throughout the play. They share a florid familiarity within the conversation, a familiar communication or the apparent lack thereof. They are two people who are haunted by grief or unhappiness. And their partners are mannequins, literal mannequins.
This directorial choice struck me as a strange one, an absurd set-piece given to the display. Though, it focuses the characters who are live. By talking to mannequins, we are forced into the lens of their perspectives. The woman who is thrown into this conundrum of her anxiety, asking herself about her 8-year old girl dealing with bone marrow treatments. Asking “what reason is there for this?” Zwier captured the restraint of this character well. I felt for her motherliness, the sad longing that very much showed the shadow she carried in her expression.
And then there’s this man, complaining to his wife about the theatre they’re returning from: “The lines are cliché, the lot is predictable. It was overly convoluted and complex. Faux existentialism. You know what that means?”
He’s mansplains to a mannequin and is none the wiser that he is eating his words on the stage, a nigthhawk on display for the sake of us: flies on the wall penetrating the stillness of this sudden play that he’s in. Is this self-reflection, a writer’s wink? Maybe then this is a play on plays, and he’s the wise fool.
A great theme of this piece is that in a claustrophobic environment, we all descend into archetypes. ‘Who are you?’, it asks. But more importantly, ‘who do you become within this setting?’
What’s bizarre about Lights Out is that it doesn’t subscribe to the standard construction of a plot. It leaves much unresolved. Some characters end on low notes, others on high notes. There is no arching resolution, only painful or exciting revelations.
Some characters end wanting nothing but a cold beer, like Sam Lothard’s Manny. Lothard plays a coolly, composed everyman; really locking on the fast-thinking coolness of the character. The setting changes, and his demeanor changes with it. There are choices to be made in the story, and you can see these choices made. His growth as a character is palpable.
Connor Mccanlus‘s Sam Alec is the clown, the entertainer. He prompts the darkened train car into community by playing out music from his computer. He asks the other passengers questions, or interrupts their private conversations. He pulls the train car into the narrative that he wants to be there.
Mccanlus’ edge for this role is rather impressive, touting the line of a curiously obnoxious provocateur. While Sam Alec riles the interaction out of people, it’s Mccanlus’ timing and ferocious smarminess that creates the punctuation within the role.
Some characters suddenly find themselves in a trapped situation, forced to grip their personal demon and wrestle with it on the floor of a darkened train car. It can get messy. It can get vulnerable.
But it can also get romantic with Jenny Malarkey’s Nadine and Michael Lane Sullivan’s Mick just being two characters who are horny and suddenly there’s this black-out and they’re like ‘fuck it’ and then they’re just making out for a while. Meanwhile, there’s this drama brewing in the background and they’re just sort of messing around.
That’s the treasure of a setting. It’s a habitat. It’s alive with unfocused environmental figures, acting autonomously or interacting. It’s a painting come to life. There’s also Melissa Franklin’s Anita, just muttering to herself nothing but bible verses. She’s not frightened, but strengthened and yet still; she’s essentially incommunicable and obsessed. Just a strange part of this situation. The Setting crawls with itself, its habitat. The anxiety is set dressing for the people who are suddenly simply there.
This play’s satisfaction is caught up with the inescapable madness that some people are dealing with sisyphean tasks in their lives: failure, grief, love, alcoholism. It’s burrowed into a sudden plot, under a mountain; that reveals strengths and weaknesses, unknown warmths, truth and coldness. But there’s much humanity in it, which is sometimes obnoxious or hard to see; and sometimes beautiful.
It’s a strange, lonely trip to take suddenly becoming part of this environment where people are forced to reveal themselves. It’s naked and it’s fascinating.
Special thanks to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company for complimentary press tickets. Lights Out runs at their space downtown through April 15. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photo by Monteze Freeland