The same situation exists today in a few Bible Belt outposts where mixed-race marriages are reviled as much as chewing tobacco is cherished. Downtown Greensboro, where the International Civil Rights Museum is poised to open in July, isn't one of them. The city is welcoming the Triad Stage production of David Schulner's An Infinite Ache without a murmur about miscegenation emanating from local pulpits.
Tracing the relationship of a mixed-race couple from youth to old age, Schulner isn't interested in examining the intrusions of family, community, or history; rather, it's the marathon of mutual commitment that fascinates him, the endurance of intimacy between two people who change radically because of their relationship. Race is secondary, prejudice is forgotten, and time is mysteriously suspended.
The two-hander is set in L.A. Charles blunders around in the opening scene, trying to discover the nationality of the woman he adores. Hope tells him that she and her parents are American, taking innocent pleasure in giving him a hard time; then she divulges that she is part Chinese and part Filipino. Afterwards, this is barely an issue. When Charles tells his wife that he'd like their daughter to be raised Jewish, Hope immediately acquiesces, though she expresses a twinge of regret many years later when their marriage tumbles toward divorce.
The modest furnishings of the studio apartment where we first see Charles and Hope are planted on a massive turntable in the middle of Triad's thrust stage. As the scenes change, the turntable revolves, but Charles' bed is always on it. A revolving cutout in the upstage wall of Takeshi Kata's cunning set design sends clocks swiveling toward us to indicate the play's larger leaps through space and time. That wall fills with assorted bric-a-brac as the couple's joint journey proceeds; then, one by one, those items disappear.
Schulner's play affirms that seemingly small gestures and decisions can have a great impact on our lives. Turning away from her shopping cart in a supermarket for just an instant forever changes Hope as a wife, a parent, and a person. Her relationship with Charles seems sure to dissolve at the very outset, until she returns to his apartment to retrieve a trinket that she'd left behind but instead decides to leave it on his night table. In that moment, two people are irrevocably fastened together. Intriguingly, the script tends to leap over the big events within his characters' lives. Repeatedly, when Charles or Hope asks a question, the answer comes hours, months, or years later. A marriage or a birth may have occurred in the interim; as the playwright tells us in a program note, "Time moves differently here."
Directing this no-intermission production, Jay Putnam grasps both the playfulness and the profundity of the script. Though we can't see all of the toils and travails of building a life together, Putnam does have his players put their backs into manually operating the turntable set. The beats that hurtle us forward in time are perfect punctuations, emphatic without stopping the flow of the action.
Brian Louis Hoffman is monumentally eager as Charles brings Hope to his studio for the first time, setting off alarm bells that we're in for an evening of broad, Neil Simonesque comedy at its worst. But as Hope warms to our hero, Hoffman's performance becomes natural and human. Having already played Hope in the wilds of Maine at The Public Theatre in Auburn, Ann Hu is even more perfect than her co-star. Brainy, vivacious, and vulnerable, she makes us care about Hope nearly as much as Charles does, which -- as the title indicates -- is a great deal.
Knowing that Schulner is part of the brain trust that writes the hit TV series Desperate Housewives, I was worried that An Infinite Ache might exhibit the clichés and other flaws of boob tube comedy. The shaky first scene intensified that worry, and when the couple's daughter reaches her rebellious teens, one of them does say, "Let's move and not tell her." But the play's moments of luminescence far outnumber -- and outshine -- such lapses. After Hope has given birth for the first time, Hu is aglow when observing her husband holding their son. "You look like you were just born," she tells Charles, "like he gave birth to you." Hoffman, though holding nothing more than a bunched-up blanket, validates the comment.
Just under 90 minutes in length, the play is filled with joys and pains that are honestly earned and felt. Whether you've been partnered for decades or are going to Triad Stage on your first date, An Infinite Ache will very likely have you holding hands by the time it's over.