John Beatty’s Review
A SLOW AIR
By David Harrower
Directed by David Harrower
With Lewis Howden and Susan Vidler
If I had read David Harrower’s play, A Slow Air, I probably would have said to myself “This is nuts”. How can you stage a play with only two characters – who never talk to each other; a play in which there is one set and almost no action on stage; in which there is no sudden revelation which jolts the audience, and a play in which the character who motivates the action never appears? Obviously you can’t. Watching this play would have to be one boring experience. So, tell me then, why then is the production done at 59E59th so riveting?
The answer lies in several places. Great things like disasters rarely occur because of a single event. Clearly this is a top flight script and it might make good reading – but staging it is something else. David Harrower directs his own work here and he certainly has a flair for that. The play is a series of sequential monologues that differ in length and emotional tone. The contrast between them goes a long way to keep the play from faltering. The two performers, Lewis Howden and Susan Vidler, are right on top of the material. Although they never address one another, their ability to play off each other’s previous speech gives the play a dramatic tension that would be seriously lessened in the hands of less competent performers.
Many Americans have some difficulty with the Scottish accents (especially those from the Southern part of Scotland) to the degree that some of the Scottish films have been reduced to having to be subtitled. Despite the accents here, the dialog comes through with brilliant clarity – a bonus for the audience and another indication of the talents of both the director and performers.
The play accelerates and decelerates by the length of the speeches. Juxtaposing speeches of various lengths impacts the rhythm of the speech and the speed of the play and as a result of the judicious handling of these, the play never falls into a kind of lethargy or stupor but in fact keeps the audience on its toes.
The dramatic force of the play - and specifically of the performance of the play - is also a function of the actors’ manipulation of both the speed of the words and the volume at which they are spoken. The play is written in such a way that the alternation of speed and volume give the play a dramatic tension which lets it not have to rely on physical action, special effects or physical interaction between the participants.
Although there is only one set with two chairs , the play takes place in many places – Athol’s home, the house in which the terrorists who attempted to blow up Glasgow airport built their bomb, a few bars, the house of a well to do Edinburgh family and so on. By subtle placement of the chairs, the performers and the lighting the audience feels each place and it seems clear at all times where we are. The staging of the play in terms of its movement of the participants closer or further apart, even though they are not addressing one other adds a visual dimension to the distance and closeness between the two characters.
The story itself concerns a brother and sister, Athol and Morna, who, for some reason, have not talked to one another for 14 years. That silence is about to come to an end when Morna’s son decides, at the time of his 21st birthday, to visit his uncle. The brother and sister now inhabit two different worlds both psychologically and physically. Morna cleans houses for well to do families, while Athol deals in laying tile.
There is little doubt that separation physically and psychologically of the two characters is emphasized by their lack of dialog with one another. The direct addressing of the audience has a result of linking the audience with Morna and Athol in a way they seem not to link with each other.
By the end of the play much has been worked out and worked through and it is something of a surprise looking back at the play to see how much the author has actually accomplished in letting us get some glimpse into the lives of the two characters.
A big “Thumbs up” for the entire production and kudos for Harrower, Howden and Vidler!