Story: Lorraine is out of prison for the first time in 12 years. She’s served her sentence and now is free to get on with living. Trouble is, she has no life on the outside. She’s a stranger to her adult son, whom she gave up for adoption, and she has no trade with which to earn a living. Unemployed and unwanted, she shows up on the doorstep of her cell mate Marie, who was released a while before her.
Marie is uncertain whether to invite Lorraine in to her squalid apartment. In fact, Marie is far from certain about anything. She mentions a job she has in a pub, and through her kitchen window she points out a neighbor who spends his days searching for treasures with a metal detector. The reunited women mostly spend their time trying to survive in an impersonal world, until Lorraine decides to write a letter to her 30-year-old son. When to her surprise he responds that he’d like to meet her again, Lorraine is sustained by momentary optimism that also transforms Marie with the fleeting hope for a rosier future.
Highlights: West End Players Guild has dedicated its 2012-13 season to performances of works new to St. Louis. This one-act drama, written by British playwright Chloe Moss, originally was presented in London in 2008 and is based on her experiences as a volunteer working with women in England’s Cookham Wood prison.
Moss’s dialogue beautifully captures the rhythms of speech, pauses and mannerisms in two ex-cons as they struggle to put their lives back together beyond the ironic security they felt during their incarceration. Director Sean Belt elicits convincing performances from actresses Jane Abling and Rachel Hanks that shape the WEPG production with persuasive power and poignancy.
Other Info: The unlisted dialect coach deserves considerable credit for the consistent and realistic accents both women fashion throughout their performances. They truly give the impression that they’re a couple of contemporary London ladies down on their luck, placing the action firmly in time and place.
The mood is further enhanced by Tim Grumich’s seedy set design, a dingy and dirty studio apartment that the women accurately consider a euphemism for cramped. The forlorn look of Marie’s near barren kitchen, bathroom, diminutive living room and hideaway bed all convey a confinement surely as oppressive as her jail cell. It’s lit in suitably low-key fashion by Tony Anselmo and filled with a depressing assortment of second-grade furniture courtesy of props designer Renee Sevier-Monsey.
Sound designer Chuck Lavazzi mixes in a variety of British pop tunes for background music as well as a pounding rainfall, and costumer Lisa Haselhorst dresses the players in attire ranging from Lorraine’s frumpy wardrobe to Marie’s blend of ragtag and flirtatious garb.
The real strength of the production, though, is the sober portrayal of two lost souls by Abling and Hanks, thanks to Belt’s nurturing and sure-handed guidance. Hanks is especially effective in conveying Marie’s desolation and crushing loneliness, which increasingly is accentuated as she believes that Lorraine is close to making a genuine family connection again.
She reveals Marie’s pain and envy as much with her body language and gestures as well as dialogue as her character lashes out with a torrent of mixed emotional signals. Abling smoothly captures the quieter dismay of the older Lorraine, reacting differently but equally to the terror of her surroundings.
This Wide Night is a well modulated and tightly written drama that underscores the plight of prisoners returning to society within the prism of two characters desperately searching for the elusive qualities of love and acceptance.
Play: This Wide Night
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
Dates: November 15, 16, 17, 18
Tickets: $20; contact 367-0025 or WestEndPlayers.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb