By Dawn Watson
It takes guts to stage a new production. Especially the very first time. And most especially when it’s a complex two-person drama such as “This Wide Night.”
The premise of the 90-minute stage play, written by British playwright Chloe Moss and locally produced by and starring Chloe Dirksen and Jessica Mortellaro, is daunting enough. The character-driven plot tackles difficult subject matter, providing a revealing and intimate look into the lives of two former felons who have been recently released from a women’s prison. And the spare setting—a single one-room “bed-sit” apartment in London—offers no place whatsoever to hide, even more so as the audience sits right up on the stage, literally within a few feet of the actors, during every moment of this production now playing at Guild Hall in East Hampton through Saturday, March 26.
Thankfully, the risk pays off here. And then some. I haven’t stopped thinking about “This Wide Night” since I saw it this past weekend.
It’s clear that the two women have put their hearts and souls into the work. The acting is just a part of it, though of course that’s what a review usually focuses on so we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Everything in the production feels right and real and in the moment for these two characters—Lorraine, as played by Ms. Dirksen, and Marie, as played by Ms. Mortellaro—who are struggling just to get by. The loving attention to detail by the crew of people (director Joe Minutello, plus Jon Raynor, Jose Santiago, Felix Bird, Bethany Sortman, Emily Selyukova, Tina Jones and Joe Pallister) involved in this passion project also earns my applause.
I loved the authentic and thoughtful touches that grace the stage: the tiny television with picture but no sound, the single futon bed the women must share, the never-used pots and pans hanging in the kitchen, an overstuffed dresser, and real running water behind the closed doors of the bathroom.
The sounds, also, were not just lovely but integral to good storytelling. Pounding rain on the roof, a favorite song played from a cassette tape, and hauntingly melancholic original music by Mr. Bird, which was used in conjunction with well placed lighting cues to transition from one moment to the next.
Of the more technical aspects of the show, it was the wardrobe though that really blew me away. Lorraine’s sad prison-issued gear of sweatpants (“trackie bottoms” in the parlance of British slang), sweatshirt (or “jumper,” as they say for this and sweaters) and Croc-like footwear summed up her place in life at a mere glance. And her sports bra and saggy briefs (or “knickers” as they say in England) nearly broke my heart. True as well for Marie’s too tight, too small, trying-way-too-hard getups, which were equally inspired and sad-making. These clothes did more than clad a pair of actors, they told the story on their own.
None of these brilliant strokes of costume, stage, set, sound and lighting design would matter, however, if the acting wasn’t on point. I’ve seen plenty of beautiful sets and authentic touches that were blown by even big-name professionals who couldn’t get into the head space of their characters. Not the case here in the least. Bravo to both Ms. Dirksen and Ms. Mortellaro for believing in themselves and in the women they are portraying with honesty, integrity and empathy. All that is even more impressive when you consider that they’ve invited their audience in front of the proscenium and right there on stage with them.
It’s clear from the first seconds of the action that Marie is terrified of everything, even a simple knock on the door. Crouching and hiding in plain sight, her shallow breathing and pained expression more than convey that she feels hopeless and has nothing left in this world to dream for.
“I’m no good at getting through the day, let alone life,” she says to her former cellmate. “I live of fear of crowds, the rows and rows of things in a shop … of being left alone.”
And poor Lorraine, after being locked up for 12 years, is having trouble in a less-regimented environment. She’s shocked and awed by the simple act of being able to order and eat pepperoni pizza, of being alone, of taking the tiniest of baby steps necessary to re-enter society.
“That’s freedom, being able to just walk away,” she says of being given so many choices that have not been hers to make in over a decade.
But even with her newfound liberty, Lorraine has nowhere to go. Something as minor as taking a train to the beach and spending 30 quid is out of reach for someone whose every possession is crammed into a small duffel bag. So very different than the lives we all know and enjoy.
Sharing a story such as this would be a big gamble for any producing team, especially in a land of wealth and plentitude such as the one we live in. It’s heartening to know that we’ve got people right here on the East End who are brave and talented enough to pull it off. Cheers to them.