Light a single candle

Politics and the personal are inextricable in David Hare's masterful play.

A theatergoer in this country could spend years attending performances and remain safely isolated from the radical thought that politics has an impact on people's lives. While there's plenty of "social drama" out there, it tends to consist of overly simplistic attacks on such obvious social evils as racism, imperialism, and other "isms" that are easy to condemn but harder to suggest practical answers to.

Skylight

Intiman Theater

ends September 18

This is partly why a play like David Hare's Skylight is so refreshing. Hare's dramatic mastery creates an almost flawless interface of the personal and political in the story of Tom, a self-made restaurateur in his 50s, and Kyra, a bright and dedicated schoolteacher in her 30s, who attempt to reconcile one snowy night years after a long-standing affair has ended disastrously.

Skylight is being sold as "a love story," which in a way it is, though one that picks up the romance at a fairly unusual point. Kyra (Gina Nagy) ended her affair with Tom (Frank Corrado) when his wife found out about it. She then left his world of privilege to become a teacher at an inner-city school. Now, a year after his wife has died from cancer, Tom seeks Kyra out for reconciliation and perhaps some form of redemption.

But their political and social viewpoints have drifted so far apart that they can barely describe their current lives to each other without arguing. Perhaps no playwright since Shaw has been able to show how the political views we hold determine who we are in our day-to-day lives. Tom and Kyra's dilemma recalls E.M. Forster's Howard's End, where a similar romance between an idealistic young woman and a mature man of business centered on the yearning mantra "only connect."

The debate of Tom and Kyra is firmly rooted in the particulars of British politics and society, with references to the "glory days" of the entrepreneurial '80s, the poll tax, and the dismantling of the welfare state. To pretend, however, that such issues are exclusive to Britain or are some sort of "historical" debate about Thatcherism, as some critics and even Intiman's own program notes seek to do, is politically naive. What's true in Blair's Britain is even more so in Clinton's America, where the liberal left has been silenced and cowed far more thoroughly and the gap between rich and poor is far greater. What Hare achieves in the form of a romance is the confrontation of two political theories that have grown so far apart in current debate that they resemble not two philosophies, but two different species.

While Hare's own politics are clear, he's almost obsessively evenhanded in allowing the two points of view equal time. Kyra delivers a passionate defense of social workers, the people who "clean out the gutters" of society and receive scorn and hostility for it instead of assistance or appreciation. But Tom, noting how Kyra's own social work has left her isolated and lonely, comments, "You love the people because you don't have to go home with them." And as to who ultimately does the greater good for society—the unfeeling entrepreneur whose business success creates hundreds of jobs or the solitary schoolteacher who dedicates her career to unprivileged children—Hare gives no pat answers.

Hare's got a reputation as a critic's darling who puts his audiences to sleep, and the political argument occasionally obscures the human emotion here. But Skylight is not simply intelligent, it's also extremely funny at times, a side of the play that actor Frank Corrado in particular brings fully to life. Corrado is a fine actor; he has presence, gravitas, and, in this role, the sort of unappeasable anger that characterizes so many men who've achieved worldly success. At times the script has him pirouetting from anger to sensitivity in a fashion that's scarcely believable, but he manages to suggest it flows from an almost bottomless grief.

As good as Corrado is, it's former Seattleite Gina Nagy who steals the show. Added to her intelligence and impeccable instincts, Nagy's exquisite yet drawn face is a portrait in yearning, a woman who is almost beyond the point of hoping for happiness. Last year in Intiman's Glass Menagerie she was a bit too spirited to be a believable Laura, but here she hits a marathon runner's stride in the funny, articulate, and passionate Kyra.

The skylight of the play's title is in the room Tom had built for his wife as she lay dying, in which he hoped she could find some peace watching the bucolic landscape. But we see that her ghost still hovers between the two former lovers, unforgiving, and that despite all the money he spent for the view, he's been unable to buy forgiveness. It's this failure, more than Kyra's qualified success as a teacher, that decides the victor in this argument about an individual's interaction with society. For without the human qualities of compassion, love, and absolution, the only political and personal results are, inevitably, despair.

 
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