Story: Isaac has hired a new employee to help him in his window-washing business. He tells Benjamin that he selected his resume out of many that he has on file and that he will be happy to help him acclimate to his new, and perilous, position.
While they’re seated on a slender scaffold 25 stories in the air, Isaac instructs Benjamin on the basics of the job: How to wash a window with a mop, what motions to utilize, and then how to wipe it clean with a squeegee. Benjamin is unsteady suspended so high above the ground and clings to the safety rope to which he is attached. He’s also advised by Isaac to never look down.
It’s revealed soon enough that Isaac and Benjamin know each other from their native country, which Isaac left several years ago for opportunity and hope for a new life in a western nation. Now, Benjamin also has journeyed far from home with a specific purpose in mind.
Is it coincidence that Isaac and Benjamin have both ended up as immigrants in the same foreign city? Can they help each other adjust to their new lives and distance themselves from homesickness for their native land? Or is their relationship more adversarial than friendly?
Highlights: Upstream Theater opens its 12th season with the world premiere of a drama by Israeli playwright Maya Arad Yasur. Both taut and teaching in its execution, Suspended is a thoughtful variation on an ages-old story of revenge under Linda Kennedy’s studied direction. Engaging performances by Reginald Pierre and Phillip C. Dixon elevate Upstream’s production beyond the script.
Other Info: Yasur’s story won the 2010 ITI-UNESCO international playwrighting competition under its previous title Diamond Stars. While it’s a solid effort, Suspended is the type of work whose inherent problems surface quickly after the performance has concluded.
While attempting not to give away too much of the plot, the histories of the two characters seem in conflict with some early decisions in the script. For Suspended, it’s better to “suspend” logic and focus instead on the emotions revealed so expertly by Pierre and, to an extent, by Dixon as the keys to the success of Upstream’s world premiere presentation.
Pierre is one of our area’s finest actors. He has a knack for developing seemingly minor traits in characters in crafting finely honed interpretations. Here, his accent clearly delineates that Isaac is an immigrant, although one might suspect he’s South African even though the drama is written by an Israeli. Yasur’s tale seems more symbolic than actual, though, so that isn’t a detriment.
Dixon’s approach seems more tentative, understandable at first given his character’s situation, but not as satisfying as the one-act story plays out. Still, in general both actors deliver effective portrayals of two men who have known each a very long time.
Pierre especially is convincing when describing the horrors of his earlier life and the reasons for his emigration from his native country. He thoughtfully shapes Isaac’s every gesture, from the way he eats a carrot to his pantomime approach of looking ‘through’ the people on the other side of skyscraper windows.
As Benjamin wisely observes, “I’m scrubbing and scrubbing but then I get it, the stain is inside, not outside.” Dialogue such as that underscores the symbolism prevalent in Yasur’s script, as Isaac and Benjamin are unheard outsiders to the more materially successful office workers on the other side of the windows.
Cristie Johnston’s scenic design ironically lends a claustrophobic effect to the scaffold located in the wide open outdoors. Both actors spend their entire time hanging from ropes from the ceiling that help create the illusion of the physical perils of their work. The props furnished by designer Claudia Horn and Blue Sky Window Cleaning, along with Matt Johnson’s window washing consultation, lend a further air of authenticity.
Tony Anselmo and Dan Strickland intricately merge their lighting and sound designs respectively to bridge gaps in time during the long and tedious work day of the two washers, while Erik Kuhn’s fight choreography heightens the tension between the pair of men whose fragile connection to life is built on an elusive trust.
Kennedy, who adds the simple costume design, does a fine job conveying the playful camaraderie as well as the chilling confrontations between Benjamin and Isaac, all within the narrow strictures of the set and story.
Suspended is an interesting play, albeit nothing you haven’t seen or heard before. Upstream’s finely tuned interpretation eloquently elevates the story above what it might otherwise be.
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: October 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of ProPhotoSTL.com