It's a heartbreaking sight. An older couple limps up a dirt-and-gravel country road on their way home, feet dragging; their tattered clothes tired as they are. And then rain starts to pelt down, drenching them to the bone. When this couple is played by Dame Eileen Atkins and Sir Michael Gambon, two veritable legends of the stage who can infuse even the smallest expression with earth-shattering emotion, that moment becomes an even greater punch to the gut.
But what happens when there is no dirt and gravel road? What happens when the sound of their feet dragging limply behind them and the torrents of rain coming down are just effects over speakers? You're left with actors doing what they do best, without massive set pieces, eye-crossing projections, and other trappings of modern technology.
This is the beauty of All That Fall, a 1956 radio play by Samuel Beckett, now being performed under Sir Trevor Nunn's direction at 59E59 Theaters after an acclaimed London run last year. Beckett was famously protective of all his plays and their interpretations, but All That Fall was a special case. Written specifically for the medium of radio, "for voices, not bodies," as he once wrote, Beckett would not allow it to be performed, not even by the likes of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright. "It is no more theater than End-Game is radio and to 'act' it is to kill it," Beckett continued, noting that the play's success depends entirely on "the whole thing's coming out of the dark."
Nunn gets around this fact, with the blessing of Beckett's estate, by presenting All That Fall as though it were being recorded for a radio broadcast. The actors, led by Atkins and Gambon, perform with scripts in their hands beneath low-hanging microphones (the bare-bones studio set is impressively rendered by Cherry Truluck, who also designed the simple costumes). A red light flashes on when the "recording" begins and turns off when it ends. A vivid soundscape, complete with expertly timed footsteps, animal mews, and thunderclaps, is provided by designer Paul Groothuis over onstage speakers.
Atkins, in her first New York role since replacing Cherry Jones in Doubt, leads the company as Mrs. Rooney, a crotchety septuagenarian who, over the course of the piece, makes her way to the train station to meet her blind, ailing husband Dan (Gambon) after a half-day's work. Along the way she meets a host of colorful characters, including a dung carrier, a racecourse clerk, and a stiff Protestant spinster (played by a seven-person ensemble).
When Mrs. Rooney finally arrives at the station, the train has been delayed. The reason, and whether Dan had anything to do with it, is the play's central mystery. As Beckett teases out the details, red herrings abound, Nunn's production becomes more and more gripping. Atkins is titanic, both acidly hilarious and thoroughly wrenching, while Gambon delivers a master class in the art of slowly building a performance to reach a jaw-dropping climax.
Best of all, they're not acting for the radio, merely delivering lines into microphones. No, they're treating this like it's a stage play. Their actions are infused with the weight and gravity of the situation they're in. There might not be a dirt road, but who needs one when we have two great actors and the most important tool of all: our imagination.