Home is where the art is at Germinal Stage

Two old men are seated at a table talking. They may be on a hotel terrace, in an old-age home, at a hospital. All we know is that the place is by the sea. The men seem sad and beaten down by life; they have odd physical tics and converse in platitudes, in unfinished and overlapping sentences. They speak of relatives, careers, Christmases past; the stories keep changing, and the protagonists never really engage with any one particular topic. David Storey's dialogue, gnomic and elliptical, owes a debt to Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, with sentences that fall like pebbles into ever-widening silences; there's an all-pervasive sense of loss and endless waiting. Except that Jack and Harry are even more passive and hopeless than Vladimir and Estragon, who at least fought the meaninglessness of their situation. Despite all this, the old geezers are companionable. They understand each other; culturally, they inhabit the same world, and their verbal rhythms and thought patterns mesh.

Two women surge onto the stage, as defiantly working-class as Jack and Harry are feebly upper-middle or lower-upper. Marjorie is tight and prissy, Kathleen a slouchy creature in shoes that crunch her feet — she can't wear her regular shoes because they've taken away her laces, she complains, as well as her belt — who is constantly sliding her skirt up her thighs and uttering low, lascivious moans. The women's presence amps up the action, though we've no more idea who they are than who the men are. There's one other character, too, a wrestler or weightlifter who periodically enters and lifts up one of the light pieces of furniture, a chair or the table, with a lot of exaggerated grunting and posing.

We begin to suspect that something nasty is going on here. Kathleen and Marjorie are clearly insane, and we come to understand that, in their waffly, apparently benign way, so are Jack and Harry. Kathleen makes dark references to her own history of violence and rage. Marjorie implies that Jack has proclivities involving little girls. So this is not a hotel, after all. An insane asylum? Perhaps even an asylum for the criminally insane.

The play's title, Home, has multiple meanings. The home the cast inhabits is a spacious and metaphorical one. On one level, it's England herself. Jack and Harry mourn the loss of empire, of their country's greatness, and of their own place in society. They speak of Darwin and Newton, and several times of Sir Walter Raleigh — the great sailor and explorer who, as they remind each other, lost his head. They are also grieving the faltering and rapidly approaching extinction of their faculties. In this place, God has lost his potency, although Jack refers to him morosely as a "presence lurking everywhere."

Once again, Germinal has brought a fascinating, literate and little-known script to the stage, and the performances of Ed Baierlein as Jack and Terry Burnsed as Harry are revelatory. It ought to be boring, watching two actors sitting in gloomy silence, indulging in small eccentricities, but it isn't. Their scenes are mesmerizing because both actors have immersed themselves so deeply in their roles, and you sense profound feelings beneath the surface of their chat. The production gets out of whack, however, with the entrance of Marjorie and Kathleen. The women are supposed to bring a blast of energy with them, but as Marjorie, Suzanna Wellens seems almost to have entered from another play, a far more farcical one. She speaks as if her lines make no more sense to her than they do to the audience (mad people say mad things, but they generally think of these things as sane) and employs a distractingly unrealistic accent. Marc K. Moran is equally unconvincing as the wrestler. Fortunately, Rita Broderick settles more and more securely and authoritatively into the role of Kathleen as the evening unfolds, though even she has moments that could have been explored further. Why, for example, does Kathleen offer Harry her hand, an offer that degenerates into dark comedy when she later refuses to let go? Is the gesture strictly carnal, or does it carry just the faintest hint of fellow feeling?

 
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