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Theatre in Review: The Gray Man (Pipeline Theatre Company)

Shane Zeigler, Daniel Johnsen. Photo: Suzi Sadler

These are the elements that make up Andrew Farmer's new play: An eerie lullaby about a little girl who is carried away into the woods, where she dies. A pair of women, bearing lanterns in the darkness and frightening unseen children with a tale about a "gray man," whose mouth drips gold, and a boy named Simon. A young man, harrowed by the loss of his mother and sisters, struggling to hold on to his sanity -- oddly, also named Simon. John, the genial, handsome, enigmatic roommate of the latter Simon. Two neighbor ladies hanging laundry, their breezy conversation betraying a callous disregard for their little ones. An empty cottage in the woods, far from the city. A string of child disappearances. And Grace, a preternaturally adultlike 10-year-old girl, who is penning an eerie story -- about a boy name Simon.

Employing the technique favored by many of today's literary thriller writers, Farmer shifts between various narrative lines and points of view, expertly building the expectation that something terrible is about to happen -- but what? Simon clings to John, who often disappears for the evening -- but then John offers, out of the blue, to return Simon to his home in the country -- why? What is the source of the screaming coming from another apartment on the floor where Simon and John live? (The setting is a city tenement; the time is roughly the turn of the last century.) And why do Simon and Grace enjoy such an instant rapport? Even as the feeling of dread grows, and as the playwright arranges for certain characters to end up in that deserted cottage, we are forced to wonder if what we are seeing is (a) really happening, (b) a tale told by fearful women, or (c) the product of one character's distorted imagination. Even after the lights come up, it is left teasingly unclear if The Gray Man is a classic ghost story or a psychological puzzler.

The Gray Man might seem a bit commonplace given a more straightforward staging, but the director, Andrew Neisler, turns it into an immersive experience that has you nervously looking over your shoulder for stray bits of ectoplasm. The stage has been removed from Walkerspace and the audience is seated on four sides along the room's perimeter. In the center is a raised deck with a two-sided set representing Simon's apartment: On one side is a kitchen; on the other, a tiny bedroom. Little Grace is found behind a window placed high above the action, along with a laundry line, for scenes with those two chatty matrons. This setup would seem to create blocking nightmares in terms of visibility, but Neisler handles it with skill, staging scenes across the full expanse of the playing area and on several levels; the proximity of the actors to us, often in half-light, creates a creepy intimacy that is hard to shake off. Christopher Bowser's starkly angled lighting constantly reshapes the space, conjuring up an atmosphere of mystery; certain scenes are daringly played in total darkness, adding to the general tension. Lighting and sound work together beautifully in a nightmarish sequence set in a train station, rendered as a labyrinth dominated by the sound of a train engine. (The effective score, by Mike Brun and Chris Ryan, is played live on a piano. Daniel Dabdoub's costumes have a solid period feel.)

Neisler has also assembled a cast of players capable of keeping the playwright's cards firmly affixed to their chests. Daniel Johnsen's Simon is, alternately, pathetically needy, faintly menacing, and, quite possibly, on the edge of mental illness. (It appears that both his sisters succumbed to insanity, although, on this point, and many others, the script is ambiguous.) Shane Zeigler's John is, for all his appearance of normality, even more mysterious than Simon, especially given their unresolved connection. ("When I saw you, standing there at the funeral, I knew you, but I didn't know how," says Simon wonderingly.) Katharine Lorraine and Claire Rothrock are both deeply unsettling and bitterly amusing as those lantern-bearing sentinels and a pair of gossips sharing their troubles while hanging their laundry. Tahlia Ellie is beguiling as little Grace, who alone seems to understand Simon.

Above all, there is Farmer's skill at planting oddly unsettling details. One of the laundry ladies, irritated, asks Simon, "Did your mother keep you close every second of every day?" "Yes," he quickly replies, leaving us wondering about his hothouse youth. Later, speaking of his mother, Simon adds, "All my life, she was right there in front of me. And now that she's gone, I see...everything I wasn't seeing before." Simon's putative job is that of handyman, "making things nice." Grace, eyeing him, says, "You make things nice because you can't make people nice." Some of the dialogue is swiftly, unexpectedly witty: Speaking to John, who is apparently a ladies' man, Simon says, suspiciously, "You're not going to take me out drinking, are you? Or introduce me to some woman named Chardonnay or something?"

What with the movies dispensing this sort of hair-raiser by the cartload practically every week, the theatre should be hard-pressed to compete. But Farmer, Neisler, and company, armed with plenty of theatrical imagination, proved to be remarkably skilled at the practice of raising goose flesh. The Gray Man is loaded with puzzles and mysteries, but, to me, the greatest one is that it is running only until October 18. This would be an excellent way to spend Halloween. -- David Barbour

(28 September 2015)

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