Though at times elusive, The Two-Character Play is a pleasingly rich and layered piece. First performed in 1967 and rewritten and revised several times since, this rarely performed Tennessee Williams play meshes elements of Pirandello and Beckett’s Endgame with the gothic insularity of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and a measure of Williams’ own life experiences.
The play’s two characters, Felice and Clare, a brother and sister, are stuck in a chilly, seemingly abandoned theatre in some unspecified city. She is an actress, he a writer. Together they begin to perform their own two character play about another brother and sister, a reclusive pair living in a house in the Deep South surrounded by a wall of sunflowers.
Something ugly and bloody happened to their parents and now the siblings never go outside. The phone has been cut off and the mail is no longer delivered; local kids throw stones at their windows. The pair make half-hearted attempts to reengage with the world, but these always end in self-sabotage.
In one of the play’s more explicit moments, the characters agree that: “theatres are prisons to players and writers of plays.” The idea of insanity and imprisonment ribbons the text. They often speak of becoming 'lost' in the play, to the point that though the space they're performing in is cold, they are able to shed their coats and feel the warmth of a southern summer day. The lines between worlds are blurred.
Both sets of characters, the performers and the roles they inhabit, seem caught in a kind of limbo, forced to loop through the same scenes, never reaching a satisfying conclusion, repeating and repeating, cutting lines, re-writing, tweaking.
It’s easy to see why Williams was so fond of this play. The Two-Character Play is a poetic and elegant, circular and self-aware, containing reflections within reflections; there’s plenty of humour and warmth on display too, which serves to balance out the play’s more impenetrable moments. Gene David Kirk’s production successfully makes the case for it as an exciting, experimental piece of writing, rather than a limp, forgotten thing that’s been dusted down for the sake of it. His staging is incredibly atmospheric, and even when the text sometimes meanders, as it does in places, this necessary sense of intensity is sustained (though an interval - perhaps unnecessary in a play of this length - does threaten to scupper things).
The cast seem completely tuned in to the idiosyncratic rhythms of the text. Both performers ably switch between the two different realities of the piece, their accents deepening as they become submerged in the play within the play. Catherine Cusack is suitably fragile-looking yet not without humour as the twitchy, pill-popping sister while Paul McEwan has a kind of dishevelled dignity as Felice (which extends to his portrayal of the other brother, the one within the play), keeping an ever-watchful eye on his sister yet also clearly beset by his own anxieties.
The staging is simple yet effective. Alice Walkling’s set does double duty for both of the play’s realities and its half-finished, crumbling, cluttered feel is very much in keeping with the mood of the piece, while Kirk keeps a commendably solid grip on this, at times slippery, play right until the end when, as it nears its finish, the lighting is slowly dimmed and the world of the characters is narrowed further until they are finally trapped together in a single spotlight.
Reviewed for musicOMH