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|A CurtainUp Review
Copyright 2000, Elyse
Stranger, the title of Craig Lucas' new drama could easily be the umbrella tag for all his plays. All have a "stranger" character who is a devil of sorts leading us into a black hole where the line between normal and abnormal, good and evil impulses blurs. As in the past, Mr. Lucas asks us to suspend questions about credibility for the reality of that surreal world.
Stranger has much in common with the last Lucas play, The Dying Gaul, which also premiered at the Vineyard with Mark Brokaw at the helm. Both are well written and often funny psychological thrillers. But while Gaul was wrenched from the playwright's own painful loss of his lover to AIDS, Stranger is a behind the headlines thriller with a sociological subtext somewhat like Bruce Graham's more realistic Coyote On a Fence (see link).
Like Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 chance encounter thriller, Strangers On a Train, Lucas throws together two strangers, Linda (Kyra Sedgwick) and Hush ( David Strathairn), in this case on an airplane. In the course of the instant and strictly temporary intimacy that can develop between airplane seatmates, they reveal their pasts to each other -- actually she does most of the revealing while he, true to his name, speaks mostly through his body language and silences.
Hush, the first to settle into his seat, a bible with a rubber band around it clutched in his lap, is attractive enough but there's an awkward withdrawn quality about him that would make a smart girl wary about getting involved, especially once he tells her that he's just been released from prison after fifteen years. I'm not giving anything away here since it's brought out almost immediately after Linda takes the seat next to him. Linda is definitely a smart young woman, full of bouncy energy and smart alecky humor, greeting his revelation with "Wow! Welcome to living." Her non-stop, one-liner studded chatter almost lulls us into a sense of being entertained by an interesting encounter. But Linda is no more a poster child for mental health than Hush. Once turbulence rocks the plane and gives Hush a chance to use his bible to calm the hysterical Linda, fasten your seatbelt for the second act's descent into an ever darker sur-reality.
The second act moves from the air to a woodsy cabin (Neil Patel's booklined set, a realistic contrast to the more abstract airplane environment, looks too much like a writer's retreat) and on a sheer technical level the transition requires you to make a leap beyond sequential logic in order accept Lucas' merger of a fifteen year-old abuse story and the present in which Hush clings to his psychopharmaceutical and spiritual life raft and Linda's struggles with her demons. I won't spoil things with a detailed summary of events except to tell you that while you'll learn enough about both of these people to understand what brought them to this place, at this time, won't make them anything but strangers -- the scary undistinguishable strangers in our midst whose out of control impulses eluded the help and understanding of parents, teachers and healthcare professionals.
Sedgwick and Strathairn make the most of the rich acting opportunities the script provides. She is maniacally funny and ultimately, shatteringly fragile. Strathairn gets Hush just right. He is neither smarmy or deceptively charming but a man you can picture committing a crime even as you want to believe that his religious zeal and pills will help him achieve the tranquility he seeks. David Harbor and Julianne Nicholson are excellent in multiple supporting roles.
If you don't expect a coincidence free, logical thriller with all the loose ends neatly tied up, you'll find Stranger a gripping, edge-of-the-seat experience. The unanswered and unanswerable questions about the social implications of unrecognized and improperly treated schizophrenia and the victim-victimizer relationship known as the Stockholm Syndrome provide plenty of fodder for discussion and thought. In the final analysis though, Stranger points up the great satisfactions of The Dying Gaul. While it goes into the deepest recesses of its characters' psyches, it lacks the emotional resonance of Gaul which went into the deepest recesses of its creator's heart.
The Dying Gaul -- original review
The Dying Gaul-- second look
Coyote On a Fence