I Have Loved Strangers
nytheatre.com review by Tomi Tsunoda
June 5, 2006
Anne Washburn's I Have Loved Strangers, first of this year's new plays at Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks festival, introduces us to a fragmented portrait of New York City. It moves among several disparate stories and characters: a Biblical King and a prophet who bears him bad news; a modern urban guru and his wife Ruthie, whose marriage struggles in the gap between fear and optimism; and the wife's friend Emily, who leads a group of domestic terrorists operating underground. The play eventually weaves these separate poetic strains into a tale of a self-destructive motley crew of urbanites who are unsure of what they want from themselves, each other, and the world around them.
The production begins as a primordial sea of phrases, characters, and choreographic patterns. Exploiting the expanse of the Ohio Theatre, director Johanna McKeon places most of this story on a bare, transformative stage, which takes more shape as the story itself comes further into focus.
The cast moves through the bare stage trying to activate seemingly unrelated snippets of text through seemingly unrelated characters and moments. Although this was true to the nature of the writing, I found myself drifting during this section. Aside from a general picture of an urban world with shifting points of focus, I found little to hold onto through the first third or so of the play.
Once the play settles into itself, and the actors are allowed to connect and develop relationships, the production begins to take off. The story seems to unfold in both a Biblical and a modern era simultaneously, causing me to take even more time to catch up to what these people and their stories had to do with each other. I was unsure of how our Biblical prophet transcended time to arrive in the NYC apartment with the terrorists. By the time the play came to its dramatic climax, I wanted to care more about the paradox of ideals these people find themselves confronting than I'd been allowed by the structure of the text.
This was a particular shame because the cast seem so willing to commit to whatever the play throws them. Standing out are the two prophets: T. Ryder Smith as Jeremiah reminded me of how beautiful an actor's instrument can be when stretched to its physical limits. His body continually flowed over the line between beautiful and grotesque movement, and sold me on his ability to channel the word of God. James Stanley as Hananiah, the play's gentler prophet, succeeds in keeping his more poetic language grounded in a personal truth. His gentleness and humility provide a perfect counterpoint to the possessions of Smith. Also noteworthy in this production is Jay Smith, the Non-Prophet/King who activates McKeon's brave silences with magnetism and depth, deftly crossing over the boundaries between good and evil, trust and betrayal, fear and power. However, Laura Flanagan's construction of Emily, the patriot terrorist, seemed a forced caricature of someone who cares deeply about politics and activism, rather than a truthful engagement in Emily's deep drive and conflicted identity.
Set designer Michael Carnahan and lighting designer Driscoll Otto smartly take advantage of the six tall, imposing columns in the theater's natural architecture, lending the world of this play a sense of sacredness and grandeur. The emotion of the lights underscores the poetry of the text and magnitude of its ideas. The upstage wall consists of a large scrim flat and a gorgeous door that looks crafted from rods of iron, set inside a vaulted brick doorway. But although it is used as an entrance/exit, sometimes creating striking images, it never takes on the dramatic significance its design seemed to suggest.
Overall, I was thrilled by the production's magical moments. The entire team seemed undaunted by huge, theatrical ideas, which was exhilarating and a rare treat. Director McKeon takes gorgeous and gutsy risks with silence and darkness, and navigates the shifting text with integrity and passionate imagery. Washburn's text tackles huge ideas through some truly personal conflicts and engaging characters, but much of the poetry felt self-conscious to me, maybe better read than dramatized. I deeply invested in the story once I was allowed to access it, and found myself wishing Washburn would take one more step back and allow the characters to fully take over the play.