BWW Review: Chance Theater's Superb SKYLIGHT Reunites Flawed Ex-Lovers Scarred by their Affair
It's not a difficult generalization to make to say that most (if not all) romantic relationships often require a lot of work to keep it humming along. But then again, some couplings, in spite of the presence of genuine love, passion, and care are just, unfortunately, predestined to fail---mostly because of a multitude of undeniable factors that are just too overpowering to ignore.
Those specific highs and lows---and all the cloudy, uneasy details in between---are all picked apart and analyzed by a pair of distressed former lovers in British playwright David Hare's absorbing 1995 play SKYLIGHT, currently on stage at Anaheim's Chance Theater through May 19, 2019. Directed with an appealing yet captivating casualness by Chance Theater's own artistic director Oanh Nguyen, this excellent, beautifully-acted new local revival of the Olivier and Tony Award-winning drama focuses on a pair of deeply flawed individuals who have been trying their best to move on separately with their respective lives despite the deep scars that continue to haunt them.
Could a resuscitation of their past relationship be the key to put them both back in the right frame of mind again---or is their love unsalvageable?
Over the course of the play, public school teacher Kyra Hollis---played with keen and vibrant realism by Jessica Erin Martin---reluctantly unearths old but still stinging wounds by choosing to open the metal-gated door of her cold, very humble apartment in the sketchy part of East London to a pair of surprise visitors from her long-since abandoned past.
Although she hasn't interacted with either of these people in more than three years, she feels perhaps obligated to hear them both out since she, after all, cares deeply for both of them... and her hasty departure years ago might still require some closure.
The evening's first visitor is a young teenager, Edward Sergeant (appropriately endearing Sam Bullington) whose amiable rapport with Kyra suggests that he might very well be her younger sibling. He is not... biologically, anyway.
Frazzled and freezing from the crisp, cold temps of the London winter, the manic Edward has arrived to not only provide the play with some essential story-launching exposition, but has also shown up to express how much he misses her, demanding to know why she left. She seems genuinely touched but also slightly annoyed that this fast-talking teen has sliced through her solitude.
Kyra, we soon discover, once resided at the Sergeant mansion uptown years ago with Edward and his parents. Currently, besides probably the staff, Edward lives there with just one other person, his own father, rich restaurant magnate Tom Sergeant (played by the excellent Steve Martell). The father and son cohabitation has been quite tense lately, particularly ever since the family matriarch, Edward's mother Alice, has passed away after a long, valiant battle with cancer.
But to her utter shock, Kyra is actually more surprised by her second surprise visitor much later that evening: Edward's father Tom. Just as frazzled, the elder Sergeant's sudden need for this unplanned awkward reunion in her flat has shaken her visibly to the core.
As it turns out, Tom and Kyra's history is significantly more layered and complex than the friendly, sibling-like bond shared between Edward and Kyra.
Much earlier in her younger days, Kyra is hired as a waitress in one of Tom's early start up eateries and somehow---perhaps because of her charm or her smarts or, something else entirely we can only speculate on---gets wholly welcomed into the Sergeants' lives, eventually even moving into their home, allowing her to become a very close and very trusted unofficial member of the family.
But this close-knit proximity between Tom and Kyra eventually develops into a torrid secret affair that would last for a shockingly long six years, apparently unnoticed all that time by Tom's wife Alice---at least as far as they know. And despite being 20 years younger than the very much married Tom, Kyra carries on with the relationship, all the while fully cognizant that she is outright betraying the trust of two other people she genuinely cares about and she knows cares about her.
The affair does eventually come to an abrupt end only because Alice, one fateful day, discovers Kyra's handwritten love letters left out---supposedly by Tom---in plain view, spilling their truths between their lines. Rather than face the consequences of her role in the scandal, Kyra just bolts, never to return again. Since her departure, Kyra spends her days in a loop: teaching during the day, then coming home to a frigid apartment alone at night, grading papers and cooking thrifty meals for one (admittedly, I was fascinated by her cooking spaghetti live on stage, too). Tom, by contrast, has become even more successful in the restaurant biz, even while his home-life had come crashing down once more with the death of his wife whom he surprisingly chose to stick by throughout her illness.
Which now brings us to the present, where Kyra and Tom's reunion explodes with a swirling hurricane of tension, resentment and hostility, and even, unsurprisingly, lust and, yes, love. The Brits, though, tend to keep things a bit bottled up and close to the vest, so naturally, their emotional truths spill out in tiny trickles rather than a gushing waterfall.
Even before the audience gets to meet Tom in the flesh, the two ex-lovers are already sparring like an old couple, as Kyra is frustrated by Tom's continuous buzz of her front gate's ringer. She angrily hurls her keys downstairs with a force so that Tom---who left the warmth of his chauffeured limousine---could unlock it himself to enter her apartment complex and make his way upstairs to her flat.
Upon arrival, Tom immediately scoffs at Kyra's chosen lifestyle, refusing to believe she is at all okay with everything he's seeing, which is a stark contrast to his own posh standard of living that Kyra herself enjoyed while a resident of his home.
For her part, Kyra seems content with the reinvented life she has since taken on, yet if you look closely (a testament to Martin's exceptional performance), she still appears palpably in flux. Living very modestly in isolation in a stuffy, dreary-looking apartment that hardly lets in any light, Kyra's current situation is quite the opposite of her former life at the mansion where a skylight always allowed her to be bathed in sunshine (well, at least when it's not your typical overcast day). But lest you forget, her position now as a school teacher in a rougher part of the city seems partially (if not all) motivated by her values in helping out the less fortunate---a sentiment she wishes Tom would similarly possess, given that he's in a much more comfortable position to do so.
What transpires in the remainder of the play is a gripping summit between two very strong-minded people with very strong convictions. They vehemently confront their shared past, then openly gun for each other's foibles (no matter how vicious they get), exposing long-held emotions and newly discovered viewpoints. Both Kyra and Tom---though probably forever entangled despite time and distance---must now grapple with the changes (or lack thereof) that has since transpired while they both continued their lives apart since the big blowup.
Hare uses each character as a mouthpiece for their own stringent, often irreversible world views and ideologies that color their stance on everything---from politics, world economics, and beyond. This, naturally, adds another layer for their arguments about their love affair.
Tom, much older, much wealthier, and more set in his conservative-leaning ways, is quick to judge Kyra on her new chosen bohemian-like lifestyle of personally home-cooked meals, dilapidated surroundings, and the sad little commoner's plug-in heater incapable of producing enough warmth even for a tiny flea.
"Your life is built on escape!" Tom criticizes, insinuating that Kyra has chosen this downtrodden, economically-stifling lifestyle (which he feels is beneath her) just as an excuse to run away from her past... not so she can be in touch with "the people" that she claims need the help. Could it be that this embrace of a thriftier lifestyle is her chosen method of atonement for her role in the affair?
Kyra, on the other hand, pushes right back at Tom just as staunchly, calling him out on his antiquated elitist attitudes and questioning his renewed interest in her, now that he's aging alone without a companion. Strong-willed and self-confident---even if much of Tom's insulting observations may have a grain of truth in their venomous delivery---Kyra refuses to let Tom's external, Alpha male posturing mow her down. If anything, Tom's insecurities and immaturity (despite being much older) are not hard to miss.
They are clearly polar opposites in almost every which way---and they intrinsically both know it---yet they also can't refute that they both have strong, undeniable feelings for each other that they both can't seem to shake off, even after three years apart. If progress between them needs to happen, which one needs to change the most? Who will need to make the bigger sacrifices or compromises this time around? How do you go forward when ghosts of the past is still haunting everyone? Is it even possible to rekindle a romance that had so many factors going against it in the first place?
A quietly compelling drama that feels like the wake for a recently-passed relationship, SKYLIGHT offers up fascinating two-person discussions filled with layered nuance and relatable context, that easily ensnares an audience's rapt, almost voyeuristic attention. This production's fly-on-the-wall intimate presentation is perfectly suited to its venue, its design, the material, and the acting ensemble. Hare's carefully arranged dialogue has been staged with emotional fervor with the help of an acting ensemble and a creative team that punctuates each other's work.
Bruce Goodrich's extraordinary scenic design for Kyra's budget-conscious living space---where the entire play takes place---is chockfull of wonderful expositional detail no matter where (or when) you look, from the stained walls and flooring and aged cabinetry, to the attached bedroom and bathroom on opposite sides of the central open area shared by the living room, dining room, and kitchen. I especially love that you can see what's beyond the windows of her home: another adjacent apartment building, making hers feel like the metaphoric upper deck of a drab prison, enclosed and determined to keep the light out. Matt Schleicher's mood-dictating lighting design, Megan Hill's props (that sad little space heater!), Ryan Brodkin's environmental sound design, and Adriana Lambarri's effective costumes all help complete the overall picture.
The play's main strength, of course, relies on the constant sparring match between Kyra and Tom, and both Martin and Marvel (and their perfect British accents) provide outstanding, beautifully-fleshed out performances that truly convey the motivations and vulnerabilities of their respective characters. Even Bullington's brief but more jovial turn as young Edward is a welcome addition---even if his appearances are relegated to just the beginning and the end of the play. In a way, his role acts almost like the appetizer to whet the audience's curiosity and then as the dessert to let everyone leave the theater on a sort of hopeful if more pleasant note.
Yes, the play's slight ick factor---the lovers' 20-year age gap---is admittedly a bit of a distraction for me, especially with the added speculation of what their power dynamic must have been like in their first six years together (boss and employee, homeowner and guest, wealthy and poor, older man and younger ingenue, etc.), coupled with the today's #metoo movement that is quite top-of-mind at the moment. Nonetheless, at its core, SKYLIGHT is really more about the choices each person makes in of a relationship, whether they are well-thought out or are ruled by emotions alone. These factors are always in a constant tug-of-war and for Kyra and Tom, that tug-of-war will eventually pull the other to lose.
The play doesn't try to make a case for whether life for the characters would be better if they stayed together or remain apart, but does point out that life is filled with a multitude of complications and compromises for both the head and heart. Though SKYLIGHT doesn't end with an absolute resolution, it does leave things open for its characters to grow. Overall, Chance Theater's excellent regional revival of this absorbing drama is worth your observation.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos from Chance Theater's production of David Hare's SKYLIGHT by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.
Chance Theater's Production of SKYLIGHT continues on the Cripe Stage through March 19, 2019. The Chance Theater is located in the Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.