Posted by: strugglesome | September 24, 2010

Heavy Metal: Theatre Exile’s Iron

If you haven’t seen your mother in a full 15 years chances are you are going to be a touch taken aback if the first thing out of her mouth is “The woman next door tried to commit suicide last week!” in a tone more suited to a garden party then a tiding of death. Of course, if said mother has been in prison for those 15 years, well, you might be a little more understanding if she’s rusty at making conversation. Certainly Josie, the daughter of convicted criminal Fay, seems to take it in stride. But what else can she do, it’s a prison visit, not a family reunion, and even if she wanted to leave, they have rules about that sort of thing. And, with a strong and well crafted sense of claustrophobia, so begins the Theatre Exile production of Rona Munro’s Iron, a troubling examination of love, family, and imprisonment.

Staged across and around a thin cement block tiled walkway; one side leads to a small “cell”, the other to a wider platform area which transforms from waiting room to garden to strip search area over the course of the play. The audience is divided into two audience banks sandwiching Laura Jellinek’s effective and sleek set, leaving the performers in the center like platters of food at an extremely sterile dinner party. Well, to be fair, Josie (Kim Carson)  and Fay (Catharine K. Slusar)  are confined to this area, but the two guards can go wherever they like, and do. Circling the audience silently, directing spectators where to sit, delivering the fire-speech in efficient impatient bursts, the two guards (Michael Hagan and Caitlin Antram) give us the unnerving sense of being consistently monitored.  In fact, the entire production seems engineered and calibrated to inspire in the audience all of the tension and paranoia of an actual prison, from the cameras and fluorescent lighting (part of Drew Billiau’s solid lighting design) to the muffled voices and sounds created by Christopher Colucci’s disturbing and well crafted sound plot. But it is Deborah Block’s extremely strong direction, more than any technical aspect of the production, that winds the audience tightly into the tension and emotional landscape of this story.

The plot itself is a simple one, set in an unnamed town in Scotland. A young woman, Josie (whom Carson plays with a startlingly vivid and effective vulnerability and a strong emotional spectrum), has come to visit her mother, Fay (played by Slusar with a strength, conviction and fragility that is reason enough to see this production), in prison. In the fifteen years of her confinement, Fay, convicted for the murder of her husband James, has never had a single visitor. Though there are initial hiccups in their reuniting (it’s hard not to be awkward in the face of a murder charge, isn’t it), the pair soon form a bond built on a longing for a lost past and a desperate desire for life. Josie is desperate and eager to delve into Fay’s memories of the lost time before the murder, while Fay wants to hear about Josie’s life, her travels, her love affairs, her first dates and her shoes. Separated by the confines of the visiting hours and the watchful eyes of the guards, Josie and Fay nevertheless grow closer and closer, their relationship becoming a desperate attempt to live freely within each other, despite the many walls between them. As the play progresses and Fay demands more and more of Josie, it is clear that the relationship between these two women threatens to consume them both. Despite warnings from prison guard Shelia (Antram in a performance that is subtly nuanced, smart and deeply affecting) who darkly alludes to Fay’s manipulative nature, Josie is determined to help her newly re-claimed mother, and it is this desire that becomes the catalyst for the play’s emotional explosive conclusion, which is no less upsetting for its inevitability.

Well paced, sleekly played, and balancing on the edge of a razor wire of tension, this production elevates the actual play itself. Block’s direction has created a complete world, and the hum of danger in the atmosphere leaves the audience more than aware of the internal tensions of the piece.  Clear and sharp as this production is, at moments this becomes an unfortunate highlight of the weaknesses of the play. Playing with concepts of love and loss, desperation and the impulse towards violence, Munro gives us a world of secretly savage women and ineffective largely absent men, and an environment in which family relationships might just be a means to an end. While Munro has written Josie to be a restrained young woman, her conversations with Fay bring out her fire, prompting confessions that show the two women to be more then a little alike.  Upon discovering a streak of violent love common to both women,  Fay remarks “If you’re a living person you’ll lose control of your feelings sooner or later. Just never loose it with a kitchen knife in your hand, that’s my advice to you.”  But is the loss of control just that inevitable? Certainly Shelia doesn’t think so, but while she assures Fay that she is nothing like her, it’s clear that Shelia’s own resentment of her absentee husband has become a live thing inside of her. Or is Murno saying that Josie carries that gene of fury in her like her mother before her? Certainly the repetition of the line “It’s only natural” would seem to imply such a thing.

But a confusion of themes on the part of the playwright doesn’t let us really examine this complex issue to it’s full extant. And while Murno’s Fay rages against the prison system, it’s monotony, it’s abuses, it’s confinement, that anger becomes muddled in the anger Fay exhibits over her husband and her own actions, convoluted the character, rendering her opaque and therefore less sympathetic. Add in prison guard George (Hagan, the weakest link among this strong cast both in terms of talent and in his mangled Scottish accent), whose presence in the play seems to be an afterthought, and Fay’s increasingly obvious emotional manipulation on her susceptible daughter, and you have a climax/confrontation that, while beautifully written and superbly acted, spends a little more then it has earned. Luckily the simplicity and beauty of the play’s final scene almost manage to fully redeem the flaws of the script, and there are images from this piece that last within you as you leave the theater.

Theatre Exile’s Iron runs now through October 10th, so you have lots of choice in your show dates. And as Shelia reminds us in the parting line of the play, “What’s life without choices?”. Pick up tickets here.

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