In The Sound of a Voice, you only hurt the one you love

Rich in silence, sparing of words (and even those are sometimes unexpectedly ordinary, given the hushed and mysterious setting), The Sound of a Voice is based on Japanese folklore. An exploration of human love and loneliness — among other things — the play begins as a warrior comes to kill the hermit whom locals have stigmatized as a witch, stays at her home, and interacts with her in nine brief, ambiguous and evocative scenes.

When Man, as the warrior is called, arrives, Woman welcomes him with tea. They assess each other in silence, and the sound of the amber liquid pouring into the cup seems to fill the auditorium; such is the level of concentration and precision that Paragon Theatre director Warren Sherrill has achieved with this production. Man professes himself pleased with the tea, and Woman offers food and gives him a bamboo mat to sleep on. But every night his sleep is troubled by strange sounds and the haunting music of a shakuhachi, a kind of flute, which Woman supposedly plays — though the audience can see the player, partly shrouded by a scrim, and we know it isn't Woman. Scene by scene, the protagonists explore the possibility of love, sparring (literally, at one point), talking, retreating, even joking a little, scrubbing together at a persistent stain on the floor, Man periodically preparing to leave while Woman begs for his continued company. Objects take on intense significance, most particularly the perennially fresh and glowing flowers that Woman tends with grace and passion and which Man fears contain the trapped souls of travelers who came before him: He has heard that no man has ever returned from this house. When Woman insists she is not a witch, that she means Man no harm and does not understand what it is within her that drives guest after guest to leave, it's a cry from a very human heart, and perhaps the most moving moment in the play. And yet it doesn't banish all suspicion, for certainly supernatural forces are at work — though they might be intended by playwright David Henry Hwang as metaphors for the universal uncertainties of love. At one point, as she's being ceremonially draped in gorgeous, sun-colored robes, Woman says that she has always been unable to cry and that her parents feared she was a ghost or a demon. Earlier, she has told Man, "I create a world which is outside the realm of what you know."

Well, of course. That's what such women of myth and folklore do, from the half-human, half-fairy enchantresses English knights tend to meet on the road to the kitsune, or fox spirits, of Japanese myth, who often take on the form of a beautiful woman. The world these creatures lay open to their earthly guests is the world of magic that abuts and inter-penetrates our own reality all the time, but it's one of which we usually remain unaware.

Watching The Sound of a Voice, I couldn't help remembering Jose Rivera's beautiful riff on this theme, Cloud Tectonics, which was staged by Curious some years ago. In that play, a pregnant young woman, Celestina del Sol, is taken into the home of a man who has seen her standing in pelting rain. The moment she walks in, the clocks stop. She explains that she lives outside time, and together she and the man create a reality of their own — until their reverie is interrupted by the entry of his soldier brother. For Man and Woman in The Sound of a Voice, the outcome of their time of enchantment is grim.

For this production, Michael Andrew Doherty lends his meditative musicality on the shakuhachi, and dancers Kim Robards and Gregory Gonzales perform between and sometimes during scenes, expressing the attraction and repulsion, longing and fear of the protagonists. This kind of device would be irritating if Robards's choreography were less expressive, or she and Gonzales less talented; instead, it adds resonance and depth. Dale Li's Man is anything but the archetypal Japanese warrior; he seems young and a bit goofy, though tough-minded when necessary. Sheila Ivy Traister is smoothly effective as Woman. The actors' approach hovers somewhere between realistic and kabuki-stylized; both tamp down their emotions until they simply become too strong to contain. The most heart-meltingly expressive moments, however, are silent, and come with Traister's rare and beautiful smile.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman