To hear two British writers put it, society is made up of two kinds of people: “People Like Us” or “Weirdies”– developmentally or socially challenged individuals. At least it seems odd that the term weirdy comes up in not one but two revivals running in the East Bay: the stage adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which prominently features a couple of doomed outsiders; and Peter Nichols’ Joe Egg, about family members shaped by their daughter’s severe cerebral palsy. Perhaps British writers are more likely to take aim at ostracism and social disapproval, themes that run heavily through both plays. These themes feed into larger ones, notably war in one play and abandonment in the other.
In a season thick with antiwar plays, it’s significant that the most potent plea for peace is being delivered by a play that never once mentions the word “war.” Fifty years ago, William Golding was looking for a way to expose the roots of conflict and decided to strand a bunch of English schoolboys on an island and watch them go feral. Thirty years later when I dutifully read Lord of the Flies along with every other seventh-grader in this country, it seemed very much a story about what would happen if boys of any age were left to their own devices. Interestingly at the time, we really saw it as the way boys would act. Unsupervised girls wouldn’t beat each other to death in an orgiastic frenzy over some burnt pork, would they? Deride unfashionable outsiders mercilessly, sure. But torture and kill? No.
Lately we’ve seen that women are as capable of thoughtless physical cruelty as men. Even before Abu Ghraib, there was the recent case of an all-female senior-high hazing that left one young woman brain-damaged from a beating. The guilty parties, caught on video, threatened to sue the school if they weren’t allowed to graduate. There was no apparent remorse.
Which makes Woman’s Will’s decision to stage an all-female production of Flies all the more relevant. While the usual ideas are still painfully germane — war between peoples is an extension of the violence between individuals, rational thought is easily chucked in favor of mob rule, nobody takes responsibility for the first error — this play hits painfully close to home for newer reasons, and watching it performed by women, even if they’re acting as young boys, works in unexpected ways.
Lord features a magnetic triumvirate of Jenny Debevec’s Jack, Lizzie Calogero’s Piggy, and J. Tiffany Holland (last year’s Othello) as a sweetly dreamy Simon. Or, since Golding was a big fan of all matters psychological, we can break them down as id, ego, and superego: Jack as the fiery, mindless force of animal nature, Simon as the thoughtful mediator, and twitching, irritating Piggy as the rational mind that crumbles in the face of violence. Meanwhile Jennifer Dean’s Ralph stands by trying to understand why the fact he was voted chief of the castaway band doesn’t seem to mean he has any control of what goes on; Dean gets strongest near the end when her character is being hunted by the wild-eyed Jack and Sigrid Sutter’s smoothly vicious Roger.
The choice to cast eighth-grader Sarah Smithton as “littlun” Percival was a smart one; she ends up seeming much younger than the others, and there’s a little moment where Percival curls up under Simon’s protective arm that is completely believable. But then the whole play is full of little moments you have to watch for, many of them belonging to the near-silent Simon; while a group of hunters may be running howling around the outside of the seats, Simon is communing with an impaled boar’s head or solving the mystery of the occult Beast (Golding’s thinly veiled metaphor for the kind of fear politicians like to fan up into a reason to attack other countries).
Meanwhile, the witty and eventually devastating Joe Egg concerns the war at home, as two people struggle to keep their marriage together. Sheila and Brian (“Bri”) have a system that works. While both fantasize about unlikely outcomes, they’ve largely accepted that their nonverbal, wheelchair-reliant daughter Josephine is not going to get “better.” She’s not going to suddenly become the laughing, mentally present child who flits across the stage in a dream. They make up elaborate multiple personalities for a child who hasn’t got one, they tease each other in the comfortable way of old marrieds, they join forces against disapproving outsiders. But the system and the marriage are both fraying under the strain, a strain made worse when Sheila gets involved with amateur theater and Bri begins to feel neglected. The situation goes critical one wintry night when unexpected visitors — and Bri’s mother — all show up at the same time, dripping well-meaning cloddishness, ill-concealed disdain, or both.
In Joe Egg, playwright Peter Nichols really plays with the fourth wall; the characters take turns facing out to the audience and either talking about themselves or reenacting situations they’ve been in before the time when the action of the play takes place. There’s a great aside in which Bri plays the first doctor Sheila approached; in a scathing critique of socialized medicine, he turns his back on his patient after delivering an incomprehensible explanation of Josephine’s problem. In places it’s intense and engaging and in others it’s just darn cute, but eventually it becomes so extensive that we’re left pondering how much of what we believe to be true is really a matter of interpretation.
Happily, the play opens with Simon Vance as Bri disciplining the audience to sit quiet and still. Vance gave us witty flashes in The Color of Water and Via Dolorosa with TheatreFIRST; now he opens up the throttle as a man who conceals his sadness and exhaustion with funny voices and one-liners, saying of winning his wife that he “walked around for days feeling like a phallic symbol.” Nichols has a sure hand with language; later when Bri’s mask slips, he admits of his marriage that “[Sheila] couldn’t pretend a passion she didn’t feel, whereas I can’t sustain a passion to the end of a sentence.” Meanwhile Cynthia Bassham plays Sheila with the warmly no-nonsense demeanor and bobbed hair of a grade-school art teacher. Sheila loves every living thing, and is painfully convinced that Josephine’s cerebral palsy is a result of Sheila’s premarital promiscuity (this play is actually 36 years old, and occasionally it shows). The relationship between Bri and Sheila, whether they’re speaking to each other or the audience, is convincingly drawn and even more convincingly acted. All of the levels are visible — Bri’s attention-getting behaviors and Sheila’s sighingly impatient reactions, all the bits and pieces of a long marriage that has settled into a rut where nothing surprising ever happens.
Wanda McCaddon as Bri’s mother, Grace, is tartly competent, and the tension between her and Sheila is familiar (“I at least managed to keep a house free of fleas,” Grace ripostes when Sheila accuses her of spoiling Bri). But the knockout here is fifth-grader Miranda Swain as Josephine; a dear childhood friend of mine had CP, and Swain’s grasp of the physical manifestations is impeccable.
In the second act, when Sheila’s colleague Freddie and his wife, Pam, drop by for a visit, the acting gets patchier. Jessica Powell’s characterization of Pam was so exaggerated that I started to wonder if she was actually a drag queen. And Howard Dillon’s loud, intrusive Freddie seems to exist only to make certain commentary about British Socialism. (“Was I shouting?” he asks. “I tend to raise my voice when I’m helping people.”) Director Clive Chafer gets in a nice piece of blocking when he puts Bri and Sheila back-to-back on the sofa, unconsciously defending against the intruders. Although their sex life may have slowed to “a therapeutic bash once in a blue moon,” they’re still a tight unit. Or at least seem to be, until Bri, exhausted, toys with leaving his family.
The pressure to conform and have or be what everyone else does couldn’t be expressed more strongly than it is in these two plays, whether we’re supposed to be tough manly hunters like Jack’s savage band in Flies or have a child “that would smile at you like a real baby” in Joe Egg. Both Golding and Nichols have approached their subjects truthfully and with skill; although the acting is uneven in both these productions, the messages are delivered clearly and engagingly.