In the early decades of the twentieth century, millions of people fell ill with encephalitis lethargica, a disease that seemed almost supernatural or like something out of a fairy tale: These people froze. They experienced a suspension of all life and activity, becoming silent, still and comatose, sometimes for decades, though for some there were intermittent sounds or movements. In the 1960s, a drug developed for Parkinson's was given to a group of patients, and in several cases, what seemed like a miraculous remission occurred. Patients woke, laughed, spoke, became themselves again. But the action of the drug was unreliable, and patients were eventually re-entombed in their own stiffened bodies.
In 1972, Dr. Oliver Sacks published a book called Awakenings in which he detailed his work with those suffering from encephalitis lethargica (the book was later made into a film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams). Harold Pinter was fascinated by Sacks's account — and you can see why he would be. In his plays, Pinter often explores odd states of being as well as the interplay between language and silence. Silence is, in fact, a crucial component of his work. His pauses and evasions are as important as what gets said; the silences pulse against the written text and shape the action just as white or negative space can delineate images and communicate meaning in visual art. Pinter's plays are deeply ambiguous, and they often evoke a sense of nameless menace. In his one-act A Kind of Alaska, currently showing at Germinal Stage, he attempts to penetrate the impenetrable mystery of just what those suffering from encephalitis lethargica actually experienced.
The setting is deceptively normal: a pleasantly comfortable sitting room. A woman, Deborah, lies in a contorted position on a bed under a lace coverlet. She stirs and murmurs. A man sits by her, silent, watching. Then he speaks: Do you know me? Do you recognize me? Can you hear me?
A Kind of Alaska
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through September 23, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
Deborah is now in her forties, having fallen into her trance when she was sixteen. Now she struggles to orient herself, remembering sisters, a dog, her parents, anticipating a birthday party; she's sometimes an eager child, sometimes a distraught and disoriented adult, filled alternately with foreboding and a wordless wonder. The man, Hornby, tells her he is her doctor and has been watching and taking care of her for 29 years, but she can't take in the information, though she does periodically attempt a mildly lewd flirtation with him. Nor does she recognize the middle-aged woman who comes into the room and introduces herself as her younger sister, Pauline, and also — as Hornby tells Deborah a little later — his wife.
Not much actually happens: The life of this play is in the language and the characters' unvoiced thoughts and feelings. And the result is mesmerizing; it shapes your brain waves like music, like a piece by Philip Glass. There are occasional hints of some frightening underlying reality. Sleeping Beauty may have been awakened by a kiss, but when Deborah opens her eyes, she sees neither a prince nor a kindly doctor like Oliver Sacks. "I woke you with an injection," Hornby says when Deborah asks if he used a magic wand. "Sisters are diabolical," she comments at one point, and as soon as Pauline appears, we realize that something in their relationship is profoundly askew.
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Director Ed Baierlein has emphasized this menacing aspect of the play. David Fenerty's Hornby is unreadable, unsympathetic, sternly and deliberately inexpressive. And sister Pauline, as played by Lisa Mumpton, clearly harbors the most sinister of motivations. All of this works well, providing a hard edge that emphasizes the quicksilver vulnerability of Elgin Kelley's Deborah. And while all the performances are good (though I'm not sure why everyone has a Cockney-inflected accent), Kelley's alone makes this evening a must-see. She has immersed herself deeply in the part, and she knows — even if she can never articulate it — precisely what Deborah experienced in her impenetrable silence. At one point, she struggles to stand, sinks back onto the bed, rises again and attempts to dance. "I've kept in practice, you know," she says. "I've been dancing in very narrow spaces." In that moment, she embodies all the anguish, strife, bewilderment and momentary joy of a living creature trapped in the silver-flute lines of Pinter's text.