A Slow Air
nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
April 5, 2012
New York audiences may be familiar with Scots playwright David Harrower from Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2007 production of Blackbird. Here Harrower takes on the role of director as well as writer. A Slow Air is another two-hander but in this case the entire piece is structured as two interwoven monologues delivered by an estranged brother Athol (Lewis Howdon) and sister Morna (Susan Vidler) and is, in essence, theatrical simplicity itself. My initial reaction was one of confused frustration because the two people on stage never directly speak to one another, even when describing events where both actually participate.
Athol presents himself as the battered and bruised hardworking responsible sibling, having made something of himself as the owner of a tile and flooring company in Glasgow. Morna presents herself as a passionate free spirit raising a son on her own in Edinburgh as a house cleaner for the well-to-do. She harbors regrets about many of her past choices but is quick for a fight to defend herself or her son. Both characters appear flawed and express a firm belief in the betrayal perpetrated by the other.
As an additional backdrop to the story Harrower introduces the theme of terrorism and anti-Islamic sentiment as Morna’s son seems obsessed with Muslims and the terrorists who attacked the Glasgow airport in 2007 and who happened to live just down the road from Athol in a house that now stands empty.
The longer I was able to allow the production and the story wash over me, the more its layers unfolded themselves. Harrower presents us with two ordinary people who have never seen eye to eye or been able to communicate with one another. A mere trick played on them by Morna’s son to get them into the same room would hardly be enough motivation for them to connect on any deeper level. So essentially the very structure of the piece conveys meaning.
As a writer Harrower’s style of shared storytelling from different perspectives is fascinating and effective. He offers us two characters that truly struggle to find themselves through questions of identity and identification. From where they prefer to live (Glasgow vs. Edinburgh) and the music they champion (Simple Minds vs. U2) to whose lifestyle is more relevant, and to matters of national identity and the changing face of the community, each is imbued with a healthy dose of ego and self-righteousness but armed with only partial truths about the past.
Even Morna’s son provokes the question “who do you think you are?” He shouts after Athol who has rebuked him for encouraging the dog to wreak havoc on his Muslim neighbors.
The monologues grow shorter and the pace quickens as the story comes to its apex. Yet Harrower's language is still a kind of dialogue in isolation reminiscent of fellow Celtic writer Brian Friel and is filled with humor and emotion. And both siblings must face some painful revelations by the stories end.
The cast does a terrific job. Lewis Howdon projects a world weary air as a decent sort of guy who believes he is doing the right thing. Susan Vidler as the more high-strung Morna is believable and committed. Both bring a welcome kind of naturalness into this stylized structure, especially Howdon who slips into the part like a comfortable old glove.
As a director Harrow keeps the staging simple but effective by using only two chairs on a divided stage. The design by Jessica Brettle is also very simple and visually supportive of the story. Morna’s side of the stage is dark and evocative of the multiple pubs where she spends so much of her time looking for love. Athol’s portion of the stage moves into torn up tiles, which bring to mind the abandoned terrorist house and are significant in that the flooring expert cannot prevent his foundations from disintegrating beneath him.
The play does not result in the “payoffs” one usually expects from the theatre. Harrower leaves a number of loose ends untied but he also leaves an everyman story to contemplate, a kind of residual sadness and a distinct longing to truly connect with another human being. I think that is as good a reason as any to head to the theatre! One further note: brush up a bit on Scottish culture and slang; you will be glad you did.