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Theatre in Review: Tremor (Sherman Theatre/59E59)

Paul Rattray, Lisa Diveney. Photo: Mark Douet.

Tremor begins with a reunion of ex-lovers and ends with the baring of an ugly truth about life in Britain today. I don't want to tell too much, as the success of Brad Birch's play depends on a series of carefully timed revelations, but I can note without hesitation that David Mercatali's direction of this taut, brief two-hander builds successfully to a climactic speech that led to quiet expressions of dismay in the audience. Like them, you probably won't see what's coming, yet once the shock wears off, it makes an awful kind of sense.

The action begins with the appearance of Sophie on the doorstep of Tom, her ex. They broke up four years earlier, and he has moved on. He's living in another town, is married with a two-year-old son, and has started a new business that he runs from home; he is settled in the world and seems quite pleased about it. By contrast, Sophie is tense, awkward, and faintly hostile. At first, jealousy appears to be the issue: If Tom has reinvented himself, Sophie is stuck in neutral -- alone, unhappy in her work, and unsure what to do next.

From the way Sophie broaches the topic of Tom's wife -- especially what she knows about his past -- it seems obvious that theirs was more than the standard breakup story. Gradually, we learn that they were involved in a bus accident that killed thirty-two, many of them children. That the bus driver was a Muslim was enough to set off a firestorm of media speculation, increasing the pressure on the police to deliver an open-and-shut case. Tom played a key role in the investigation that followed, becoming a hero but alienating and, ultimately, losing Sophie. Then she announces the ostensible reason for her out-of-the-blue visit: She has recently gone to see the driver, who is dying, and she urgently suggests that Tom see him, too. "It's about giving him some peace," she says.

Or is that really her intention? Tom, on the defensive, guesses that there may be more to it. What follows is a wounding recollection of two lives caught up in a disaster that became a political flashpoint and tabloid fodder. The backstory of Tremor is a tale of making decisions with far-reaching consequences, and of traumas that continue to reverberate until the present day. Their initially halting reunion threatens to explode into open battle before it reaches an honest reckoning of the scars they incurred as minor players in this disaster. And yet, the nearer they draw to each other, the closer they come to a revelation about Tom that will leave Sophie shaking.

That's all you're going to get out of me, except that I will add that Lisa Diveney and Paul Rattray expertly dig into this fraught encounter, cutting through layer after layer of anger, upset, and self-deception to reveal wildly differing interpretations of the past. (Birch cunningly loads each side with plenty of evidence, making it difficult for the audience to take sides, at least at first.) Emotions pass across Diveney's face like ripples in a pond; time and again, a single line can reverberate with multiple levels of anger, self-doubt, and wry wit. Rattray's Tom is a trickier proposition: ostentatiously proper at first, but underneath harboring a defensive rage followed by an apparent serenity that, given what he is saying, is guaranteed to horrify.

The production is spare in the extreme: Hayley Grindle's set consists of little more than a circular playing space, plus a single painting that serves as a conversation piece. Ace McCarron's lighting is similarly restrained, as is Sam Jones' sound, which consists of a few mood-setting abstract effects.

Birch probably allows Sophie to lecture Tom a little too much early on, leading one to fear that the play might up a one-sided harangue. Still, Tremor has much to say about the sour, pre-Brexit mood of Britain, in which fear of modernity, especially globalization, has given rise to a most repugnant nativism. (Do I need to point out the resonance this has for an American audience?) Before the play is over, Sophie will have good reason to wish she had never made that visit. -- David Barbour

(22 May 2018)

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