Five Kinds of Silence
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
November 15, 2008
[Note: Audience members wishing to view supertitles should sit in the bank of seats farthest from the entrance (stage right); the projection screen is above the bank of seats close to the door and cannot be seen from those seats]
The action in Shelagh Stephenson's Five Kinds of Silence begins in the immediate aftermath of a gunshot—sisters Janet and Susan, in the presence of their mother, Mary, have taken a shotgun and killed their father, Billy. All are perfectly calm, accepting of the absolute necessity of their actions, immediately willing to confess and take whatever consequences are coming to them. The rest of the play is an examination of the history of this family, and eventually a circling back into the moment of the shooting. The sisters journey through a legal process that feels indescribably gentle compared to the terrors we learn about their home life; their history is brought out through interviews with police investigators, attorneys, and psychiatrists, as well as the letters Susan and Janet write to their mother from a minimum-security prison. Omnipresent, also, is the powerful figure of Billy himself, both appearing as a ghost or specter in their minds and their scenes, and addressing the audience directly to tell his side of the story from his childhood to the moment of his death.
The picture that emerges is unremittingly bleak, and a textbook case of an abusive family situation: abused as a child by his own mother, Billy grows into a violent, control-obsessed man. An epileptic condition Billy develops in middle age makes him even more unpredictable and prone to outbursts of rage. He marries a shy, sexually inexperienced, and naive young woman with a troubled family history of her own (Mary's mother died when Mary was a little girl, and she was raised by her father, another troubled and troubling parent who was at best distant and at worst abusive). Although good-looking, attentive in public, and seemingly the "perfect" boyfriend, Billy rapidly becomes a tyrant in the home, setting increasingly arduous and capricious rules (how many inches from the edge of the table a glass should be; what kinds of noises could and could not be made in the home) and exacting increasingly violent punishments on both his wife and his daughters when those rules are broken. Once Susan and Janet become adolescents, he abuses them sexually as well as physically. He constrains all three women from having any outside friends, let alone boyfriends for the daughters (who are 36 and 34 when the play takes place but seem both psychologically and physically trapped in a sort of ghostly adolescence); he controls their every action to the point where the stunted, terror-stricken life they live seems normal.
And through years and years of this terrible abuse, the women are told, and believe, that if they try to escape, he will kill them all and then kill himself.
Stephenson's choice to give Billy, in his monologues, the most evocative, rich, and poetic language—along with a robust performance by Stephen Hansen—adds shades of complexity to a character who could easily be a caricature. But understanding Billy or his roots doesn't make him less of a monster. He outdoes the terrors of his own childhood by several orders of magnitude, to the point where there's an almost cartoonish level to his malevolence, especially when discussing the sexual abuse of the daughters, which seems motivated by pure evil rather than the more complicated roots of the violence and control. Hansen's vigor also stands out because he seems to feel in a way that the women no longer can; all three of the leading women (Beatriz Cordoba as Mary, Lanna Joffrey as Janet, and Monica Perez-Brandes as Susan) seem to have a reduced emotional range. I think this blunted affect is a powerful choice on the part of director Tlaloc Rivas and the three women, though a risky one that has a few missteps: sometimes the affectlessness crosses the line into simply flat acting, and sometimes there's not enough variance between the professional, careful affectlessness of the professionals (James Chen and Kate Kertez as an array of psychiatrists, lawyers, and detectives) and the limited emotional range of the women.
Although the details of the story get worse and worse as the play goes on, the violence and darkness at the heart of this family become evident early on, and since the play begins with the murder, we know throughout where all this history leads. The play's main mysteries are not why did they kill him, or even how this family came to be as destructive as it was, but why did they kill him now—what made them pick up the gun on this day, what gave them the strength or the courage—and is it still possible for them to find some kind of happiness or peace in the aftermath of his death? And although the play gestures toward answering both of those questions, I'm not sure it ever succeeds; it's more a portrait of an utterly broken family than any kind of investigation.The darkness in that portrait can seem completely unremitting; I would have liked to get a stronger sense of the coping mechanisms that allowed these women to survive without becoming completely catatonic, that allowed them to ultimately find the strength to fight back.