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Theatre in Review: My Eyes Went Dark (59E59)

Declan Conlon, Thusitha Jayasundera. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

It was less than a year ago that the Irish actor Declan Conlon delivered a stunning performance, simmering with barely suppressed violence, in Quietly, a drama about the poisonous legacy of Ireland's religious troubles. Now comes My Eyes Went Dark, which offers proof, if any was needed, that Conlon's work was no fluke; as Nikolai Koslov, an Ossetian architect struggling to cope with an unimaginable family tragedy, he suggests the terrible emotions roiling his character's soul with the simplest and most economical of means. This time out, he is in superb company, appearing with the actress Thusitha Jayasundera, who plays everyone else Koslov encounters on a strange, constantly shifting journey that roughly mirrors Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross' five stages of grief, before ending with a quiet knockout punch.

The incident that puts the story in motion is the plane crash that kills Koslov's wife and two children. When we first see him, he is at the crash site, disoriented, holding his daughter's body in his arms. "Her cardigan got snagged on a branch," he tells the photographer who runs into him, his eerily gentle voice setting off all sorts of alarms. In a series of brief, jagged scenes that don't follow a strict chronology, we see Koslov camped out, living rough near his family's grave, assiduously scraping away with a knife the dirt that has collected on the in-ground headstone. Discovering that the crash was due to the error of an air traffic controller working for a private company, he seeks revenge -- I won't say how -- and ends up in prison. Later, he appears to have moved past the tragedy, even having earned a measure of fame from it. But has he really healed?

Conlon is especially brilliant at signaling submerged emotions, a skill that proves invaluable here. The sight of him tenderly cradling his daughter's dead body reveals a man who has come unstuck from himself, teetering perilously on the edge of madness. Facing off against the skillfully evasive public relations officer of the air traffic control company, he insistently demands both an official apology and a meeting with the controller who committed the fatal error. Reminded that he has been offered compensation, he suddenly roars, with the savagery of a Biblical prophet, "Yes I know all about those. Sixty grand for my dead wife. Fifty grand for each of my dead children. I wonder how you worked that out. Seriously." Later, questioned by the prison psychiatrist about the incident that led to his arrest, he insists, flatly, that he recalls nothing; his exact words are echoed in the play's title. Even here, he remains a tensely coiled presence, ready to strike; in the depths of his grief, Koslov is the kind of character you dare not look away from. Thanks to Conlon's towering work, you won't want to, anyway.

If Conlon brings the suggestion of bottomless depths to his character, Jayasundera efficiently sketches in a dozen others, lending them more dimension than their relatively brief stage time would seemingly allow. Among others, she appears as Lizka, Koslov's grief-ridden sister-in-law, her dramatically teary outbursts contrasting starkly with his mute grief; the company spokesperson, who tries to calm Koslov while carefully choosing each word to forestall further legal action; the air traffic controller's wife, who, in the middle of a phone conversation with her mother, suddenly wonders why there is a strange man sitting on her lawn; and the controller's daughter, who confronts Koslov publicly about his refusal to meet with her grief-stricken mother. The actress is especially penetrating as Geisinger, the prison psychiatrist, who poses probing questions about the human impulse to punish others; she tells Koslov, the Ossetian, provocatively, "We know it wasn't so long ago, perhaps only fifty years or so, that feuds in your country were decided in this way. You belong to a history, a cultural history, of resolving trauma in this way."

Given the fragmented nature of Matthew Wilkinson's script, the narrative is occasionally a little confusing. Bethany Wells' set design -- essentially a bare playing area with a slightly reflective surface -- does not always make it clear where we are until a scene is well underway. Sometimes Wilkinson tries a little too hard to be harrowing, as in a scene in which Koslov confronts a young girl who knew his daughter, terrifying her with photos of his dead loved ones. ("That's a shroud," he tells her. "It's because she was the most mutilated of all, you see.") And, once in a while, Koslov's story, an epic journey through various stages of grief, doesn't seem well served by this structure: He seems to be a different person from scene to scene.

Still, under Wilkinson's direction, there are many passages of unsparing power, and Conlon and Jayasundera hold the play together through a potent combination of talent and nerve. Elliot Griggs' lighting makes excellent use of side washes to carve the actors out of the darkness. Max Pappenheim's sound design includes a broad range of evocative effects -- thunder, wind, birdsong, planes taking off, and electronic dance music, among others.

For all its calculated intensity, My Eyes Went Dark concludes with a flashback to Koslov's marriage, a tender moment that reveals why he, at bottom, feels responsible for the loss of his family. It's one of the most restrained scenes in the play and, ironically, one of the most devastating, a powerful reminder of how much our lives are ruled by the law of unintended consequences. It's a fitting conclusion to a play that examines the many faces of mourning -- and, as elsewhere, Conlon and Jayasundera play it with haunting restraint. -- David Barbour

(15 June 2017)

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