Silence, it is said, is golden. But silence in the human being is not considered to be at all so. Men and women who would be silent, it is felt, have something to hide. And why, when silence can be so soothing, so gentle a thing, is it so feared? Possibly because, when the generally gregarious human being meets another who is not, who remains silent even in the face of threats, that silence is not understood. When we are confronted by silence, we tend to react irrationally. When our questions are not returned to us as answers, we try to fill in the void—to answer our own questions. This, of course, results in abysmal failure, because we interpret the silence, not as an absence of sound but as an absence of agreement—an absence of confirmation.
Ghost & Spice Productions is now presenting three different works which all examine the effect of a person’s silence on the human psyche. The work is titled Silence by the Masters: Three Short Plays by Pinter, Strindberg, and Beckett, and it is running at the Common Ground Theatre in Durham through January 27.
The plays that Ghost & Spice has selected are indeed by masters of their trade. The first is by Harold Pinter, the second by August Strindberg, and the final work is by Samuel Beckett. They are each exceptionally compelling, but the sum total of the three is even greater than the sum of its parts.
The ensemble that creates these three works onstage are all Ghost & Spice regulars. The first, Pinter’s play “A Slight Ache,” consists of three characters: Edward (Rick Lonon), a writer; Flora (Lenore Field), his wife; and an aged Matchseller (Jordan Smith). August Strindberg’s offering, “The Stronger,” is directed by Rus Hames and has only two characters, known as Madame X (Lenore Field) and Madame Y. And Beckett’s contribution is titled only “Rough for Theatre II.” It has three characters, A, B, and C. Rus Hames plays A and Rick Lonon plays B; but they refer to each other as Bertrand and Norman. Their subject, played by Jordan Smith, is merely C.
In each of these works, one character has absolutely no lines. S/he is silent. And while those who confront the silent one do so in varying ways, all seem to suffer for it. This is the theme that runs through the production. Edward, in “A Slight Ache,” realizes that, for the umpteenth time, an old man, a matchseller, has been standing at the back gate of their rather extensive estate. For reasons we do not understand, this upsets him terribly. Without knowing why or how, Edward understands that the presence of this man will be his undoing.
“The Stronger” is the women’s side of confrontation. Madame Y is an actress, and on this particular Christmas Eve she is preparing, in her dressing room, for her turn onstage. But as she prepares, a friend drops by, Madame X (Lenore Fields). Unlike Y, X is married, has children, and is preparing to go home for an evening with her family. As she enters the dressing room, talking all the while, Y remains silent, allowing her friend to ramble. But soon X begins to question Y, wondering why she remains so silent in the face of questions. Soon X has talked herself into believing that her own loving husband and father of her two children has had an affair with Y.
In a somewhat different take on silence, we see in “Rough for Theatre II” a man who has come to the end of his rope. He sits silently in the room of another. Ostensibly he is here to feed the cat, but in fact he is contemplating suicide. We learn this from two men who observe him from above. They are analysts who discuss this man’s worth, his effect on his fellow men, and the man’s sadly ineffective efforts to reinvent a life that seems predestined to fail. We learn slowly that these are not actually human beings; they are, in fact, some form of cosmic being. It is this pair that will decide whether or not to allow the man to have his final wish.
Each of these plays has its own take on silence and its effects. But while Pinter’s and Strindberg’s plays cause suffering in those who would fight the silence, Beckett’s seems to offer respite to he who is silent. In Beckett’s play, C manages to beat these two visitors at the game they have decided he must play.
Rick Lonon presents two very different characters in Silence by the Masters, but both of them have extremely comical aspects. Lonon shows himself to be an extremely agile comic actor, physically as well as mentally. In “A Slight Ache,” he must control exactly the dissolving of a man into mania, and he must do so from a starting point in complete control. Lonon handles the descent perfectly. In “Rough for Theatre II,” he is half of a pair who must analyze data, but the “client” is a man who wishes to end his life. Lonon’s character uses data only; he insists that “the client is in these files and nowhere else.” But he can do it so comically that, despite the subject matter, we laugh.
Lenore Field also takes on two roles, both wives: to Edward as Flora, and as Madame X. But these roles are by no means similar. As Flora, Field is the wife of an insufferable man; the type who has taken on his own battles and won them; but his wife has not shared his life so much as she has witnessed it. He is verbally abusive, and actually causes her pain when he grabs her to silence her. But Field’s character is not cowed—by no means. She finds a way to escape this man through his own shortcomings. She listens attentively to his rantings at the silent Matchseller; and she uses them to get what she, ultimately, wants. Madame X is another creature entirely, not only of another time but, being a woman of her time, complete with husband and family and all its rewards, she is smug. Madame Y is her undoing, but the actress who plays Madame X controls the action, and Field does so beautifully, each realization falling after another.
Rus Hames directs “The Stronger,” then plays in Beckett’s “Rough.” He is the voice of reason here, if any in Beckett can be said to be so. Hames’ Bertrand is not one to view the surface of the situation, and Hames digs deep into this “client’s” history. When he senses something is wrong, he is absolutely right. Finally, Jordan Smith, in two roles that do not by any means stretch an actor’s ability to memorize lines, nevertheless allow him to exert his considerable energies into characters who must remain, at all times, absolutely silent. Yet, in both, he is the focal point of all the action going on around him. At the same time, his characters are also moving forward; and to see this happen in this masterful actor is a joy to watch.
These works are enigmatic. The principal actions of these characters are not rational. But what we see created before us by this superior cast is visceral, not logical. The effect of silence, regardless of who suffers, is not healthy in human beings. Whether the keeper of the silence is a keeper of secrets, of ignorance, or simply of pain, it seems that the very act of remaining silent creates in others a terror that is difficult to repair. Silence may very well be golden, but in human relationships, silence — the lack of communication — is the very antithesis of the Golden Rule.
Ghost & Spice Productions presents Silence by the Masters: Three Short Plays by Pinter, Strindberg, and Beckett Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 18-20 and 25-27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 21, at 2 p.m. at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students and seniors), except half price Jan. 18th and 25th. 888/239-9253 or via etix at the presenter's site. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/season/silence.html [inactive 7/07]. . Harold Pinter: http://www.haroldpinter.org/home/index.shtml [inactive 3/07]. August Strindberg: http://www.strindbergsmuseet.se/index_eng.html. Samuel Beckett: http://samuel-beckett.net/.