Emotional Lows Permeate British Playwright’s Somber, Strange Creation
At the gleaming new Signature Theatre last month, an audience member uttered to a friend immediately after viewing “Crave,” “I don’t think you can explain it—you just have to react to it.” That statement rather aptly sums up the late Sarah Kane’s 50-minute exercise in psychological self-flagellation
“Crave,” set in Signature’s smaller 99-seat black-box theater, plumbs the emotional depths of four unnamed characters: an aging man whose body language bleeds regret; a bitter woman in her 40s whose sexuality still smolders; an insecure, depressed and highly articulate young woman; and a 20-something man who uses many of his lines to acknowledge his own self-destruction.
The play’s unorthodox structure makes no attempt at plot. At times it is even unclear at whom the dialogue is directed, which is both intriguing and annoying. The prop-less play’s characters spend the entire production inside a giant box filled with silver sand. Standing, kneeling and otherwise orbiting around the box barefooted, the actors deliver bleak, rapid-fire ruminations on life, relationships and death.
It seems quite possible that British playwright Kane, who committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28, attempted to exorcise her own emotional demons in the writing of “Crave” and in some of the other works that punctuated her brief—but bright—five-year career as a professional playwright. Nevertheless, the critical success of “Crave” and the completion of her next work, “4.48 Psychosis,” did not deter Kane from swallowing 150 antidepressants and 50 sleeping pills. Although she was rushed to the hospital in time to be saved, two days later, she was discovered hanging from her shoelaces in a bathroom.
“Crave” turns viewer into voyeur as we eavesdrop on the play’s four troubled souls. The dialogue comes in constant waves, and each actor projects a different tone across the small but airy theater.
The young woman—who confesses a battle with bulimia and anorexia—gets many of the most profound lines. “Vanity, not sanity, will keep me intact,” the young woman—played with manic intensity by the talented Kathleen Coons—suddenly announces midway through the play.
Later, she laments: “I hate these words that keep me alive.” And eventually, perhaps foreshadowing her own demise, Coons’s character blurts out: “I’m evil. I’m damaged, and no one can save me.”
Meanwhile, the older man remembers the things he loved about loving a former flame, and his touching soliloquy is imbued with an aching sense of loss. However, he also reveals the reason for his loneliness: an inability to give of himself. “I take what I want and I walk away and owe you nothing,” the man—played by veteran actor John Lescault—says ruefully.
Kane’s powerful command of the English language reveals—sometimes with startling clarity—the ways in which human beings can connect one minute and disconnect the next. Kane’s words anchor “Crave” but the actors’ physicality and expressive visages give the play its texture.
At times, however, the delivery of dialogue is so staccato—with few of the thoughtful pauses that punctuate normal conversation—that it leaves the audience racing to keep up. Real people don’t talk like this, at least not to each other. Nevertheless, deeply troubled souls surely do have such emotionally charged conversations with themselves.
The young man, who at one point claims a need “to be seduced by an older woman,” embodies the addicted, emotionally empty shell of a modern man more willing to connect to a computer than to another human being. “I’m a sporadic addict. I’m addicted to sickness,” he laments, adding that he smokes and drinks until he’s sick. “I feel nothing when I don’t have it. My brain melts when I do.”
The older woman, approaching midlife without a child, elicits sympathy in spite of her anger. Deborah Hazlett’s portrayal of the terrified, aging beauty is convincing, and makes use wonder why a woman this smart and attractive would be so ready to give up on life.
Then she reminds us. “Pain is my shadow,” Hazlett’s character says hauntingly.
Unfortunately, a similar, inescapable shadow of pain enveloped and destroyed the promising playwright behind those words.
Crave through April 1 Signature Theatre 2800 S. Stafford St., Arlington, Va. Tickets are to . For more information, please call (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.