The small space of the Nick Chapel in Trumbull College, which holds an audience of about 40, could be a curse. With steep rows of stadium seats pressing the audience against the actors, and with an unraked stage, missteps are tortuously obvious.
Yet “The Breaks” — a two-woman show written by Drama School professor Deb Margolin — capitalizes on this space. Produced by Elizabeth Arno ’03, it is funny, intimate and finely acted.
Set in a third-floor utility closet in a nursing home, the play announces its central obsession from the outset: mortality.
After we see Betty (Katie Vagnino ’03) and Marion (Kate McGovern ’03) smoking, seated on milk crates at opposite ends of the stage, we are told that one of the elderly patients has been put back on oxygen. Her full name, we learn, is Belle Hop.
While the name is funny, as Betty points out, the idea that their favorite patient is named after a kind of servant sadly reminds them of their own overwhelming poverty.
But the play gets a charge from the fact that its characters — two poor, middle-aged working women — lead crushingly mortal lives that are, at the heart of it, wryly funny.
We see a series of encounters between these two workers during breaks in the utility room. Anyone who has worked a menial job knows the sort of camaraderie that can develop, or falter, during the 20-minute cigarette break.
The better part of the action is taken up by the two women discussing what goes on outside the room. It is a highly verbal play — storytelling becomes a point of departure for Betty and Marion, an act of liberation that is also a sign of their quiet desperation.
At its humming best, the storytelling skills of the actors in “The Breaks” recall the Broadway production of Conor McPherson’s “The Weir”; we need nothing more than the actors’ voices and faces to immerse us completely in their stories.
Slowly, we learn about Betty’s trip to Nicaragua with union leaders several years ago, an event she seems to think of as the only splash of color in her life. We also hear of her drug-addled son and her inadequate husband.
Marion, who is proper in a pulled-back bun of hair, guards her history prudently; we only learn about her bit by bit.
As Marion, McGovern is flawless. For minutes at a time she looks demure, almost dour, and then her shoulders expand subtly, and we see the vigor behind her prickly exterior.
When Betty and Marion dance together later in the show, McGovern’s doubtful glance slides easily into a smile, and she delivers a stirring climactic monologue. Here McGovern’s acting treads carefully away from a potentially maudlin script.
McGovern is very funny and confident throughout — her storytelling skills are formidable, her movements are powerfully efficient, and her moments of humor are devastating. She is worth an hour and a half on a Friday night.
While Vagnino seems to bring less nuance to Betty, some of the fault lies with a script that struggles to develop her beyond a sketch of a gregarious, oversexed working woman.
Vagnino excels during the comic stretches. And while she sometimes appears uncertain during the play’s somber moments, she fleshes out the uncertainty that belies Betty’s expansive character — no easy trick.
In the end, it is the expert collaboration between Vagnino and McGovern that makes the play so compelling.
And Erika MacDonald’s ’02 direction seems, everywhere, so refined and efficient that it’s difficult to imagine the actors going wrong. The blocking is never awkward; when the audience is not sure where to look, it is for a reason.
Matteo Flavio Francesco Borghese’s ’04 lighting, with its honey and blue gels, is well-attuned to the warmth of the performances. Even the electrical buzzing of one of the lights, which would be obnoxious anywhere else, is appropriate for a utility closet.
Though it is probably the largest utility closet ever, Nick Chapel is perfect to convey the intimacy of the space, and in the distilled reality of this kind of play, the actual size is not important.
Given that, Ariel Williams’ ’03 set design goes far to communicate the dilapidation of the woman’s lives.
“The Breaks” is well worth it.