Samuel Beckett was a "late bloomer." He completed his first significant work for the stage, Waiting for Godot, when he was 47, and he continued to experiment with the form of drama until he died in 1989 at the age of 83. In his late pieces, he was involved in a paring and honing toward the essence of his dramatic vision.
4 Late Short Plays of Samuel Beckett
Odd Duck Studio, ends November 22
The results of this effort can be seen in 4 Late Short Plays of Samuel Beckett, a consummate production by five local artists who've chosen to self-produce the evening. Actors Tom Wiseley and Marjorie Nelson have split the directorial duties, with Wiseley directing Frederick Charles Canada in That Time and Nelson in Rockabye, and Nelson directing herself and Kate Purwin in Footfalls and Wiseley along with Todd Jefferson Moore in Ohio Impromptu.
All four pieces deal with memory, the fear of death, and the partial comfort sought in language and narrative in keeping oblivion at bay—all themes and ideas familiar to any Beckett aficionado. Each piece presents a single image that holds the eye in a quasi-meditative state while the text circles around and around comprehension. In That Time, for example, an illuminated human head with a vast flame of white hair stares out at us as invisible speakers play out a series of memories from three distinct times. As per the written stage directions, the face blinks four times and smiles once. That's not a lot of action for a 33-minute piece, but the bizarre image and the narrative, doubling and re-doubling upon itself, are undeniably hypnotic.
The other three pieces are shorter, less obscure, and something of a relief after the overly contemplative That Time. In Footfalls, a ragged figure named May paces a corridor of light, first speaking to the disembodied voice of her mother (or is it but the memory of her mother?), then to herself, as she obsessively turns again and again, "revolving it all in [her] poor mind." It's as effective an image of obsession and anguish as anything in modern drama. Ohio Impromptu (the title refers to the piece's genesis as part of an Ohio dramatic festival) is a vignette about lost love and regret, in which two antiquarian figures, a reader and a listener, sit at a table sharing a tale from a huge book. Finally in Rockabye, an elderly woman rocks back and forth as a taped voice tells her story of an almost mindless waiting that will be only relieved by death.
It's a lot of bleakness for one evening, but the overall effect is not of despair; rather, it's the relief of staring an unpleasant truth in the face. The evening is clearly a labor of love, and is an unsentimental tribute to an uncompromising and original playwright.