Lara Hiller and David L. Townsend
in Exit/Entrance
(© Ari Mintz)
Lara Hiller and David L. Townsend
in Exit/Entrance
(© Ari Mintz)
Few plays in recent years have dared to tackle a subject so deep and broad as the emotional commitment two people make to one another over a lifetime. Exit/Entrance, a shimmering play by Aidan Mathews now at 59E59 Theaters as part of the 1st Irish Festival, takes a piercingly heartbreaking and completely honest look at one couple's journey in one of this season's first wonderful plays.

True to its title, the play begins at the end as an elderly and quietly shattered couple spends their last day on earth together in an uneasy balance of memory and ritual. Charles (Greg Mullavey) is a retired professor in failing health. His wife, Helen (Linda Thorson), is brittle and nearly broken, having had a nervous breakdown at one point in her past. While they never speak of it directly, it is clear that they have agreed to commit suicide together later this day. They will leave behind a son who has failed them. And they will leave behind the dreams and hopes of their youth.

The second act goes back in time with the young and hopeful Charles (now played by David L. Townsend) and the vibrant Helen (now played by Lara Hillier) arriving in that same apartment ready to begin their lives together. We see Charles use his intellect as a shield by which he hides his feelings, yet it is clear he genuinely adores his lovely companion. At the same time, we see both Helen's devotion to Charles and her constant striving to break through his diffident manner.

The play's conceit is that there is an old and young couple in both apartments and the events in each act parallel each other. For instance, the young Charles notes that the elderly man in the next apartment seems "defeated and looks like death." He is, in effect, describing his future self.

It's the playwright's clear intention to suggest that the fate of this couple is essentially universal, that they are part of a continuum of people who live, love, compromise, fail, hurt, and despair. And its prime virtue is in its non-judgmental affection for its characters. Flawed though Charles and Helen may be -- they can be cruel to each other -- we understand how they encircle each other in a double helix of need and healing love. Having seen how they will end, watching this couple start out gives their beginning -- and their entire lives together -- an ineffable bittersweet resonance.

Director M. Burke Walker keeps the work by all the actors effectively understated and rooted in an emotional reality, but Mullavey and Thorson provide a level of character detail in their portrayals of the older Charles and Helen that you fully feel the weight of their years together.