And No More Shall We Part, by Tom Holloway. Directed by Anne Kauffman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"I thought I could do it myself."
Jane Kaczmarek; photo: Daniel Rader
We have before us on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival a play that asks us to redefine the concept of tragedy. "A play dealing with tragic events and having an unhappy ending, especially one concerning the downfall of the main character," one definition has it. Another, more classical, is simply "a tragedy is a play in which the main character dies." In this play, "And No More Shall We Part" by Tom Holloway, there is an alteration to the meaning. In this play no one dies. And that is the tragedy.
Growing up I was taken to the movies by my mother to see "three-handkerchief-weepies," those films in which the heroine suffered and ultimately died and the audience died a little bit with her. Often starring Bette Davis or Ida Lupino or Olivia DeHavilland, the character always suffered from what we called "movie star disease," something never, or rarely, specified or identified. There was just no cause known and the man in her life, often her own doctor who just had to marry her to keep her happy for while, was freed from the suffering by being lied to, sent away, or abandoned. We wept. Life had new meaning afterward, at least for the time it took to get home.
This play is just such a "three-handkerchief-weepie." We meet Pam and Don first during the start of the long night of death. We don't know them or what they are doing or talking about. We have no idea what their problem is: could it be Alzheimer's Disease? We learn fairly quickly that she is dealing with a death scenario based on her removal by her doctors from treatment for her "ailment" and that pain and misery and death are in the offing. We later learn that she has decided to skip the pain and misery and go straight to death. Jane Kaczmarek plays Pam with a sullen cheeriness that tears your heart out. We wish hard for her to rebel against what fate has dropped at her feet, and when she does, an animal emerges, roaring and ripping out the hearts of loved ones. It is a colossal performance, one that no one will ever forget.
Alfred Molina plays her husband, Don, the father of her two children whom we never get to meet. He is an obedient and loving man who is trying his best to deal with this new tragic turn. We almost instantly understand that all decisions are her decisions, and all obedience is due her. Her children understand this and Don understands it as well, even when he rebels against the tight, hard control she exerts over him. His kick-ups are occasional and quickly fall away leaving him more vulnerable than he was before. Molina is a strong, large man who visually seems so wrong for Don, but his voice, his eyes and his lack of physical strength to resist her give the character such a heady reality that all we can do, out there in the dark, is whisper prayers for him to be able to withstand the emotional impact of tragedy.
What hurst US even more than her potential death, his potential loss, is our decidedly ignored need to know something about these people. While we feel the intensity of their pain, as much from words not written, never spoken and the silences that fall between them and between the words they do speak, we can only empathize and never sympathize. We know they have two children, living away, and grown up we assume. We know they have a nice home, seemingly an apartment but that is never clear either. We have no idea who these people are, what they do or what they did, how long they've known one another, how they came to be here with this situation and even what that situation really is - other than "Movie-Star Disease."
As this play progresses through its sixty-five minute length, we are dragged emotionally across a floor of red-hot coals, we are exposed to emotions not our own that become our own and we truly weep, even sob, but not for her and not for him. We weep for ourselves because we have to witness something that has no relationship to ourselves, because we don't know why we should feel the way we do.
That we care so much about how these two will handle her decisions for them is really amazing and a tribute to the actors as well as to the author and director who have orchestrated the vaguely familiar tune being played for us.
Alfred Molina; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek; photo: T. Charles Erickson
The title is drawn from a song by Australian singer/songwriter/actor Nick Cave. The song sings of the desperation of those left behind: "It will no longer be necessary. . .All the hatchets have been buried now. . .Your chain of command has been silenced now. . ." and so on. The play reflects the songs dark sentiments and takes us even deeper into despair. Certainly no one currently contemplating suicide should see this play about the non-specifics that suicide victims seem so often to ally themselves with on the road to self-destruction.
Director Anne Kauffman has guided her two players along the road with a large stick, a whip and a gun, just as a lion-tamer would do in the tanbark ring. There is a beautiful precision about all the choices, each one destined to break hearts. The play makes us care too deeply about people we really don't know. It is unavoidable, this feeling too intensely about what is happening. This is the route chosen for us to follow and we have no choice unless we leave the theater before the ending of the play. One thing is made very clear: life's ending is not universal, it is singular and personal and belongs only to the person who leaves life behind. What takes place in Don and Pam's home in the Autumn of their existence is theirs alone, though shared with us, the only witnesses to a new form of tragedy, a form that must exist in many places but - we staunchly hope - not where we are, not to us.
This play, were it any longer, would be a killer. As it stands it is an experience unlike any other and, "movie-star-disease" be damned, it is one that can never be forgotten once it is in our hearts and minds.
And No More Shall We Part plays on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival's home, the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at wtfestival.org.