By Albert Camus
Directed by Kevin V. Smith
Produced by Theatre Y
At the Lacuna Artist Lofts
Words that come from the heart are always simple
You’re trapped by outside forces beyond your control, unable to escape the tiny life you lead or the small, suffocating place you lead it in. An idea occurs to you: the sea, the beach, a new place, a new country; you only need money. So you convert your home into a small boarding house and kill the rich clients who wander in for their money. It’s all so easy, so simple; no one misses them. When they are found, they are found with the people who jump into the river to find escape from this squalid life.
In the context of being occupied by Nazi Germany, such a premise is intuitive to the extent that it’s shocking how natural it is. It was this same overwhelming sense of dread and despair that Harold Pinter, only 9 years old at the onset of the war and 14 when The Misunderstanding premiered, felt and attempted to translate into his theatrical works in the future. Though to call Camus’ play Pinteresque is certainly missing the mark, in more ways than one.
A young man, happy and happily married, living in a far-away land, returns home to see his mother and sister again. He left so long ago that he does not think he will recognize them, and is almost certain they will not recognize him. But he feels the need to rediscover what “home” is for him. He will not reveal who he is, so as to better learn what will make his lost relatives happy so he may give it them – which, in reality, is simply returning to his home with him, for he lives near an empty beach with beautiful sky stretching over it. (We might imagine this is Camus himself, his wish to return from Vichy France to his native Algeria.) Right at the beginning of the play, we have the happy solution: he will return home with his family and his wife, and all will live joyously. But circumstances are horribly twisted and Martha and her Mother, not realizing it is their Jan who has come to stay with them, begin arranging his death, as they have arranged so many others.
Kevin V. Smith directs this deftly, unapologetically and in search of a new paradigm for what is considered acceptable theatre in America. The women in the boarding house move through a canopy of plastic, struggling to move and breathe through a physical representation of the atmosphere they live in. Jan and Maria, his wife, are happy and free and are not covered by the sheet. What that sheet means, what it is, is never expressed; which is the point. This is theatre that asks of the audience, that wills participation and thought. It will turn some people off because it is not easy, it is not straightforward, it is not simply entertainment. But for those who crave more from their theatrical experiences than two hours of escapism, this is utterly refreshing.
And the vehicle, Camus’ play, is bracing and excellent. Camus is much crueler than Sartre, but is also so much more human. The sympathy with which he crafts his characters is touching. And, like in The Stranger, like in The Plague, he does not moralize, does not offer an ideal or a “right” way to live. He simply paints a picture, a difficult, nuanced, and upsetting picture, in which every character’s humanity is horrifying and manifest. The Misunderstanding is almost a sort of preface to The Banality of Evil. But perhaps not – perhaps these are two distinct kinds of evil; but both deal with the necessity of becoming evil, that is, becoming evil to survive in the society one finds oneself in.
This is a wonderful production of an excellent play. Well-acted, well-directed, superbly satisfying. Melissa Hawkins, Laura Jones, Daiva Bhandari, Théo Tougne and Kevin V. Smith – the entire cast – hit all the right notes. And the talk-back at the end of the play, a standard for all Theatre Y productions, can, under the right circumstances, be very fulfilling and add another level to the interaction with the play that the audience has. This is theatre as it should be done by young, intelligent, and daring people. And it should be watched.
Reviewed on 7.30.11
For full show information, check out Theatre in Chicago.
At Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport Rd, Chicago, IL; for tickets and show dates & times, go to theatre-y.com; performances through August 27; run time appx. 2 hours.