When the lights went off to signal the ending of None Too Fragile's production of Johnna Adams' unsettling, haunting, thought-provoking Sans Merci, my immediate reaction was, "Oh, please fellow audience members, don't clap!
"Please don't! This experience needs a respectful silence."
Applauding at the end of this play was like cheering at the end of a eulogy. It was a feeling that I've only had a handful of times in the theater: Broadway's Disgraced, The Bad Seed and The Father come to mind. This is a play that deserves quiet thought, not raucous applause.
But, sure enough, thanks perhaps to our sense of duty, the cheers rung out and the assemblage leaped to its feet.
Me? I sat there in deep thought. The 50-minute ride home was done in total silence. My mind was gone, stuck on the theater's stage, reliving what I had just seen and heard. Now, 12 hours later, I am still in a state of suspended shock.
What brought about my reaction?
At the start of Sans Merci (which can be translated as "without mercy"), Kelly (Cassandra West) is tossing and turning on the aged couch of an unkempt apartment. There is a knock on the door. After several more raps, Kelly, walking with a crutch, hobbles to the door, opens it and reveals a mature woman whom she does not know. When the woman asks if she is Kelly, with some obvious concern, Kelly lets her in.
Within a short period we find out that the guest is Elizabeth (Harriet DeVeto), the mother of Tracy, Kelly's college friend.
Through a series of flashbacks it is revealed that Tracy (Miranda Scholl) was a college lit major with little confidence, and communication anxiety, which resulted in panic attacks when she was required to speak in class. When Tracy has an attack in class, and runs out, she is followed by Kelly, who gives her sympathy and positive feedback. Tracy goes back to class, finishes the presentation, gets an "A." Tracy and Kelly become acquaintances, and eventually lovers.
Kelly is an idealist who dedicates herself to good deeds to "save the world." She overlooks possible dangers, and is unrealistic about whether or not she is actually solving problems.
She is going to South America to make a documentary about a native tribe whose historic lands include a mountain range which it considers to be sacred. That land is desired by an oil company, to remove the "blood" from the land. She wants to make a documentary illustrating the "rape" of the land by the petroleum firm. The area is also a political hotbed where a civil war is being waged.
That notwithstanding, she talks Tracy into going with her, with disastrous results. Both young women are raped, Kelly shot, Tracy killed ("sans merci").
Three years after the incident, Elizabeth has come to Kelly to get any possessions of Tracy's that her former lover has, and to find out about how Tracy died. Elizabeth and Kelly have never met. It readily becomes apparent that the extremely conservative Republican Elizabeth and the overly liberal, often unrealistic Kelly have only one thing in common: They both loved Tracy.
When Kelly reveals that she and Tracy were lovers, Elizabeth insists over and over that her daughter was "only going through a phase" and that if she had never become involved with Kelly, Tracy would not have gone on the mission and would still be alive.
Even though it is overlong and too talky, the script is dramatic, gripping and often riveting. It nicely balances love and heartbreak. The writer's tale includes many references to poetry, and the script is often poetic in form.
The None Too Fragile production, adeptly directed by Sean Derry and Brian Kenneth Armour, is well focused, if a little bit languid in pace.
The performances are strong, but on opening night it was obvious that all of the performers, especially Harriet DeVeto, fell into the trap of assuming that since the NTF performance area is small, projection was not necessary. DeVeto, who displayed a stoic attitude as the angry mother of the dead girl, often fell into whispering, underplaying the role so much that fully half of her speeches could not be heard. Too bad. The words of the play are vital and deserve to be revealed. Hopefully, as she becomes used to the space, her projection will increase.
Cassandra West nicely develops the idealistic Kelly, caught between causes and guilt for leading Tracy toward her death. Miranda Scholl does a nice turn with anxiety and is generally sweet. Her death scene is vivid and scary!
Be aware that there is female nudity, simulated sex, vivid language, and a gunshot during the play.