In Jenny Schwartz's play, a family uses language to bury its grief over losing a son.
Playwright Jenny Schwartz (Somewhere Fun) brings an element of surprise to the familiar theme of a family trying to cope with the loss of a child in her drama, God's Ear. Rather than touching on the usual manner of dealing with grief, Schwartz takes her signature absurdist view of the subject and the ways in which her characters seek consolation. They never reach out for sympathy but bury their need beneath cascades of meaningless language, offering only brief clues to the actual events.
Actors' Shakespeare Project is presenting God's Ear on the tiny underground stage at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville, which brings the audience close enough to the actors to reach out and hug them. The play is about Mel (Tamara Hickey) and Ted (Gabriel Kuttner), who have lost their 10-year-old son in a swimming accident. Lanie (Josephine Elwood), their younger daughter, appears to be a living casualty, as if she were floating unseen among the debris of their sorrow.
Two additional characters are summoned up in the surreal atmosphere, the Tooth Fairy (Ann Carpenter) and a life-size GI Joe doll (John Kuntz, who also doubles as a cross-dressing, murderous flight attendant). They form a support system of sorts, and whether they are real or imaginary is left up to the viewer. Guy (Dave Rich) and a call girl, Lenora (Marianna Bassham), complete the ensemble, even though they might seem tangential to the all-consuming dread.
Ted, who often appears dragging a plastic-wrapped suitcase, is a traveling salesman, pictured in several scenes on an airplane. "Are you coming home for dinner? For Christmas? For Easter? For a nor'easter?" Mel asks him, while Lanie clings to her father when he finally returns home.
Mel and Ted's emotional states form the substance of the play, related in a series of wrenching soliloquies that alternate with conversations consisting of non sequiturs and result in a blackout of communication between them. Dressed in pajamas and a shapeless robe, Mel might be the central character in Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, filling in the silence with a constant avalanche of clichés, as if to dare the capacity of language to aptly express her feelings.
Under the perceptive and imaginative direction by Thomas Derrah, the excellent cast is led by Hickey in a brilliant performance that veers from madness back to sanity, while Kuttner stammers in revealing ways through his attempts to regain equilibrium for the family. Bassham's detailed and antic portrait of a woman down on her luck does not quite hide her heavy burden of displacement in a world where everyone else seems to belong. Kuntz, one of the area's most able comic actors, displays his virtuosity in the quick changes of demeanor required for both of his characters.
Elwood, still in college, plays the six-year-old Lanie straight without the cuteness that adults frequently bring to children's roles. Carpenter is dressed as a middle-aged, somewhat dowdy fairy with wings pasted on the back of her coat, and tiny fluttering hands, as she tries to be helpful, while Rich takes on the more conventional guy attributes as Ted's buddy.
A large picture window on the back wall serves as the only entrance requiring the characters to climb over the sill and into the playing space. A large bed centers the stage, with Lanie's sandbox placed downstage. This imaginative set is designed by Cristina Todesco and enhanced with lighting by Jeff Adelberg. The furniture too is wrapped in plastic as if it's to be placed outside on the curb with the garbage. Gail Astrid Buckley has dressed the actors in nondescript shabby clothing that look like they were plucked from a rack in a resale shop.
Schwartz changes tone at the end of the play, bringing Mel and Ted back to reality in a symbolic but healing task that includes their daughter. The playwright assures us that the universal experience of grief can finally be resolved because life must go on, whether we believe her story or not.