The pathology of an ordinary couple becomes much more than slight in Raphael Soifer’s adept production of Harold Pinter’s absurd one-act, “A Slight Ache.”
The play is a classic example of Pinter’s non-realistic style and his propensity to introduce an outsider as a destructive catalyst into established relationships. It is not often produced onstage, however, for two reasons: it was originally scripted as a radio performance, and is generally recognized to include some of the denser monologues of his often dense pieces. But the challenging nature of the show makes this production more rewarding in its success.
The plot and characters are actually most clear at the beginning of the play. As the bizarre narrative unfolds, the characters reveal layers of depth, each layer harder to reconcile with the previous one.
At the beginning, the audience is presented with Edward (Adam Thompson ’04), an eccentric theologian, and Flora (Grace Kuckro ’03), his subservient wife, in their charming country home. The illusion quickly dissolves while they kill a wasp together in an entirely dysfunctional, creepy way.
Soon the main conflict is introduced in the form of a mute match-seller (Cyd Cipolla ’04) who has been lurking at their back gate for an indefinite period. Despite Edward’s intense fear and hatred for the vagabond, he invites him into the house. The tension mounts until the last moment as the characters separately interrogate the mute figure. It finally defuses in a startling revelation that raises more questions than it answers.
The match-seller’s character is both the most difficult and the most ingenious aspect of this production. Since it was entirely absent from the radio production, some critics have argued that the physical presence of a person onstage detracts from the power of the self-inflicted unraveling of the central relationship and of the speaking characters’ identities.
In this performance, however, the presence of the match-seller creates an electric tension onstage. The existence of this actor makes it more disconcerting when the audience comes to realize that they can not only not trust Edward and Flora’s attributions of background and feeling to this character, but must also doubt their perceptions of his physical appearance and affect as well. As the play progresses, the audience is led to question the reality of what is happening onstage as its expectations must be reordered and revised to fit the incongruent flow of narrative.
It is not easy entertainment, but it is a worthwhile and riveting theater-going experience. Thompson is stuck with most of the longer, ranting conversations with the mute, but pulls them off effectively. He highlights the comic potential of the distressing and sometimes incoherent content of his diatribes. Kuckro is a surprisingly dynamic Flora, evolving from a stereotype into a fascinating and complex individual. And Cipolla, denied speech and wearing a full head covering, manages to command attention and appear, at alternate times, pitiful, sensuous and terrifying.
Another production might have been able to clarify more of the forces at work in this play, but the convolution of Pinter’s script is admirably well-presented, and, overall, dramatically stunning.