nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2007
A man suddenly goes blind while he's driving his car. It's a strange kind of blindness: he's not plunged into darkness, but rather into a total whiteness, obscuring everything around him. A good samaritan helps him get home. His wife finds him crouched on the floor in the dark, he tells her what's wrong, and she takes him to an ophthalmologist.
The good samaritan turns out to be a thief, and steals the man's car.
The next day, the doctor turns blind, too, as does everyone who was in his office when the first man came. The blind man's wife becomes blind also. So does the good samaritan/thief. Blindness has inexplicably become an epidemic.
The government is swift to respond, placing the blind people in an old asylum, ostensibly to quarantine them but effectively to imprison them, even as the "disease" spreads and panic increases. Blindness, Joe Tantalo's taut and disturbing play adapted from Jose Saramango's novel, takes place almost entirely in this asylum, where a small group of victims (of the disease and the increasingly repressive regime) try to survive while conditions deteriorate alarmingly. First the government won't supply sufficient food, and when one of the "inmates" dies, they won't provide a shovel to bury him. Eventually, a group of hoodlums take over the asylum, extorting money and valuables in exchange for food; this escalates quickly to a demand for the women to submit to them sexually.
It's a relentlessly grim tale; an allegory, I think, of humanity at its inert worst. What interested me most about the story are the seemingly obvious things that the inmates fail to do: learn one another's names, for starters; effectively organize a cohesive, assertive resistance for another. Blindness trades in the desolate truth that, in real life, people aren't always (or maybe ever) the heroes we imagine or hope them to be. They don't even look to a higher power—I was struck immediately by the complete absence of prayer in a room filled with desperate, suffering people.
Things do eventually come to a head, however; I will leave the details for you to discover when you see the show. What happens ultimately has little to do with bravery or cowardice or self-sacrifice, and all to do with the strong survival instinct. Lots of terrible things that we witness (usually from very far away—I'm talking about torture and genocide and invasion) are weirdly explained by what occurs in Blindness. A moral of sorts is offered near the end: how blind are people all the time, even those who ostensibly can see?
It's a disquieting play, somewhat hard to take. It's been masterfully staged by Tantalo in a constricted, claustrophobic space that's completely surrounded by a scrim. This has the effect of (I think) simulating the white blindness for the actors, who can't really see clearly beyond the playing area, and of putting the whole piece into a kind of oversized fish tank from the audience's perspective. It's possible that without this separation, the show would be too upsetting to watch.
Maruti Evans is responsible for this remarkable, stark set, and also for the lighting, which is our only clue to location and time (and helps us remember that the characters in the story don't even have that to rely on). Andrew Recinos's score and sound design contribute mightily to the mounting tension of the piece.
Seventeen actors comprise the hard-working ensemble. Timothy Fannon plays the doctor and is the solid anchor of the company; he captures his character vividly and precisely. Offering particularly memorable performances in support are Lawrence Jansen as the samaritan/thief, Michael Tranzili as one of the blind inmates, and Gregory Konow as the savage leader of the criminals who take over the asylum.
I've not read Saramango's novel so I don't know how different Tantalo's dramatization is from it. This rendition of Blindness is thought-provoking and theatrically quite spectacular, notwithstanding the stark production and intimate venue. It's certainly another affirmation of the excellence of Tantalo's Godlight Theatre Company, which is one of indie theater's most consistently adventurous and talented troupes.