A man mourns the loss of his family and friends. This is the plot of The Designated Mourner by Wallace Shawn and currently playing at the Circle Theatre.
This play is much, much more than my simple one sentence summary. This is the most perplexing play I have ever watched. There is a narrative thread, but due to the disjointed and fragmented nature of Shawn’s writing, it takes the focus of a Sherlock Holmes to locate and grasp it. The play was about ¾ of the way over before I had enough clues to put things together.
The play takes place in a totalitarian society where being an intellectual is a crime. The play is presented as a triologue between the characters of Jack, Judy, and Howard as they share their broken and unconnected memories with the audience. Pay very close attention to what each character says as their stories and thoughts weave in and out from the present and the past, leading the audience on a very convoluted path to the endgame of this story.
Ryle Smith plays the role of Jack and directs the play. As director, he has chosen to present the play as a reader’s theatre production. I found this to be a very wise choice as this is a very static play. It is completely dialogue driven with zero action and presenting it as a narration gives this play the best possible chance for success. He has also guided himself and his other two thespians to strong performances which is absolutely vital to holding the audience’s interest in this talky production.
As Jack, Smith serves as the chief narrator of the story and is the designated mourner. Smith does a good job of presenting Jack as a wannabe intellectual. He is intelligent and has an appreciation for fine literature, but cannot converse about it on the same level as his wife, Judy, and father-in-law, Howard.
Though Jack has the veneer of a laid-back personality, it covers a much darker side. Jack is a coward, has utter contempt for his father-in-law due to his being highbrow while Jack is lowbrow, cheats on Judy, and runs with his tail tucked between his legs when the government begins to threaten Judy and Howard. As unlikable as Jack is, Smith’s interpretation does permit an understanding of, if not sympathy for, Jack. He is somewhat pitiable as he loses his sense of identity for the sake of his survival and there is a gleam of hope for him as he recognizes the poetry of beauty in the simple things of life at the play’s end.
I found the character of Judy to be the most baffling of the play and that is not a negative criticism. Due to the esoteric nature of Wallace’s writing, I simply had trouble getting a grip on Judy’s function in the story as her stories and memories are the most ethereal of the three characters. Luckily the acting of Laura Marr makes up for the rather ghostly nature of Judy.
Ms Marr always remained fully engaged in the action and I was enthralled as I watched her reactions to the stories told by Howard and Jack as her expressions told a story all their own. She was also a master of the beats as she altered tone, expression, and body language with each shift of the story. Most compelling was her storytelling when Judy was dying of an unknown illness as her body seemed to deteriorate before my eyes to coincide with the sickliness of Judy.
David Sindelar once again proves himself to be one of the city’s underrated talents with a rare, and excellent, dramatic turn as Howard. As Howard, Sindelar breathes a rather lofty air into his performance. He is the intellectual’s intellectual. Howard is a master of prose and wrote several political essays which may play into the woes he eventually suffers during the course of the show. He truly enjoys a good debate and comes off as a bit of a snob. This trait was most telling during a conversation with Jack about a mutual friend.
When Jack says he would have done things differently than this friend about a certain event, Sindelar’s Howard persuasively argues that if Jack had been the friend he would have been motivated by the same thoughts and reactions as that of the friend and, therefore, have done exactly the same thing. Sindelar did this with a wonderful superior attitude that made me wonder if the contempt between Jack and Howard were equal on both sides. Sindelar could also give lessons on projection and voice control as his powerful speaking voice filled the theatre space.
While the acting was quite strong, I felt that the pace could have been picked up quite a bit. Ms Marr and Smith also need to project a little bit more into the microphones as they were a little quiet at the start of the show.
It’s hard to write a proper conclusion to this review due to the mysterious nature of the show. I believe this play will be quite polarizing. You will either love it or you will hate it. Buckle yourself in for a long ride as a lot will be thrown at you in a short period of time, but the performing abilities of the trio of actors will go a long way in bolstering the peculiarities of the script.
The Designated Mourner plays for the Circle Theatre through February 27. Showtimes are 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays and this production is playing at the Urban Abbey located at 1026 Jackson St in the Old Market district of Omaha, NE. For reservations, contact the Circle at 402-553-4715 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets cost $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, and $10 for students, active military, and T.A.G. members. This play contains strong language and mature themes and is not suitable for children.