Blink, by Phil Porter. Directed by Daniel Elihu Kramer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"'Shit' is an even bigger surprise."
Joel Ripka and Therese Plaehn; photo: Rik Teller
Sophie and Jonah are both from rural areas of Britain. Through a variety of coincidences, including the death for each of them of a parent through panchreatic cancer, they end up living in East London in the same house. She is his landlady. They do not meet, in fact have never met, until late in the play. They are conscious of one another - the house is two flats with a shared garden - but until she decides to open herself to a new experience and sends him the flat screen for the baby monitor in her flat so he can watch her, which he happily does, they have no interaction. Her compulsive behavior inspires an obsessive reaction in Jonah. He has never had access to a woman before and Sophie becomes the object of desire, so much so that he begins to stalk her.
Loneliness is the motive in much of what these two do in their daily lives. She has been fired from her job for being "not present" and he has never worked, so has not had any social experience with people not of his own farm family. With the similarities in their background it is a theatrical miracle that they should find themselves in the same house. Like the couple in the Kander and Ebb song "Ring Dem Bells" who travel to Dubrovnik to find the person in the apartment next door on Riverside Drive, these two are clearly fated to have a relationship, even if it must remain as long distance an affair as possible. This play takes them on the journey to fond separation, a state that suits them both so very well.
Director Daniel Elihu Kramer has had the good fortune to cast two actors who can hold an audience with non-stop internal monologues, internal in that though they are telling us their story in tandem they are really retelling it to themselves for the reassurance it brings to tell it right, tell it often. With the set designer Travis A. George he has crafted a world where the outside is outside and the two apartments are encroached upon by the atmosphere of the garden. The playing spaces are just right and with the four areas Kramer has created the inner worlds of Jonah and Sophie as well as those other spaces where they are forced to be together.
Therese Plaehn brings to Sophie an open-faced sense of purity that is so extremely British she gives the impression that no time has passed in the place since the start of the 1950s. The play may be set in our own time, but her character's reality is settled in the past, in a time when women were "good" and men were marginally deviant. Sophie is devoted to her widowed father and has devoted herself to his care and management, even though they don't live together, technically (he occupies the flat below until his death). Even after his burial and her loss of an occupation she remains faithful to Dad. This quality of faithfulness, like devotion to the Queen and the Royal Family, is key to her lifestyle. It is perfectly real, in Plaehn's playing of the character, for her to never have met her tenant once Jonah has settled in. That form of outside world only touches her in a check, never in a personal checking out of another person. Plaehn is sweet and totally compelling in this role. She brings a genuineness to the part, imbuing Sophie with charisma that the woman herself would never be aware of in her daily life. As Plaehn and Kramer interpret her Sophie is that Galatea statue come to life with no major flaws and no major needs to fulfill. It's a lovely performance.
Taking a very different slant is Joel Ripka's Jonah. The son of a religious family living on their obscure farm, it is a letter from his mother which uses "words" she would never have uttered that shock him into action, into running away from his former life to seek a different sort of existence in the big city. That he basically installs himself in a flat and rarely leaves it until his reasoning says he must pursue, in secret, the woman upstairs, is a big hint as to his real inner being. Jonah is a very damaged man and as Ripka plays him that image of mental damage remains mostly under guard. Jonah can only work in silence until circumstances compel him to speak out and become a functioning part of the plot. In a two-hander like this one the inability to communicate directly could be a problem, but the double narration, which is not conversation but comes perilously close to it, allows his voice to be heard. Ripka has a wonderful voice. He uses it well here making actual conversation almost unpleasant to hear once Jonah and Sophie meet. His formality is a lovely contrivance considering the farm background of the character. We are almost forced to wonder if he sleeps with the red tie around his neck. Ripka delivers an intriguing character and makes him likeable, though not loveable.
This quirky, unusual play is not the easiest to live with. Obsessive-Compulsive relationships don't always take the odd turns that this one does, but even so Kramer masks the difficulties with light humor and provides alternatives to the normal with this intriguing British author's play. As a season closer for Chester it is certainly in keeping with much of what has come before this summer, but it does still stand alone. Just as its characters do.
Therese Plaehn and Joel Ripka; photo: Rik Teller
Blink plays through August 23 at the Chester Town Hall, off Route 20 in Chester, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-535-8872 or go on line at www.chestertheatre.org.