By Niusha Nawab
Theatre J commissioned area director Derek Goldman to adapt and direct David Grossman’s novel Falling Out of Time for their current season. The production, based on difficult source material, exhibited many issues but, with the help of a strong cast, told a story relevant to people around the world and gave this reviewer a desire to read the novel.
The story begins with a man and a woman at home, mourning their dead son. Their conversation goes like this:
I have to go.
To him, there.
To the place where it happened?’
No, no. There.
What do you mean, there?
I don’t know.
Needing to find closure with the loss, the man begins walking in circles around his town. The town chronicler, a servant and friend of the Duke, has been commissioned to write down the stories of other grieving parents. Both men have lost children but the Duke has forbidden his friend from mourning, making the chronicler the silent medium for his own suffering. The chronicler visits a midwife and cobbler, wife and husband. He visits his old math teacher and a centaur, “half-writer, half-desk.” All have lost children and are lost themselves. As the chronicler questions and the man circles, the parents choose to follow the man, to “go there.” One by one, they fall in with him, save for the centaur. The walkers struggle through their pain until they reach “there.”
From the start, the production seemed troubled. It became clear that the story, especially Grossman’s words, was uneasy in its new medium. The writing was abstract and challenging, in a way that seemed suited for a novel, where the reader sets the pace. Often it seemed that characters, without much time alone, chose to join the man, leaving unclear how they knew he was walking in the first place. I admire the ambitiousness of Derek Goldman’s work as playwright and director and marvel at the cast he brought together yet I can’t help but wonder if the novel should have been adapted at all? There is also the old question: Should a playwright direct their own work?
The design highlighted these problems. The designs were enjoyable, even spectacular, but were unfocused. Colin Bills’ lights and Eric Shimelonis’ sound were stimulating but seemed indicative, instructing the audience on how to feel. Ivania Stack’s costumes were specific in period and style (turn-of-the-century Europe) which was unfitting of an intentionally specific setting. The costumes also included an element that won’t be spoiled in this review but was excessively metaphoric, creating “realism whiplash” when the change happens. One standout costume though was the Vietnam vet rags of the centaur, which amplified the actors character choices splendidly. The set, by Mischa Kachman, while clean and simple, seemed purposeless, hardly being utilized in the staging. The props design, however, shone. Dre Moore’s décor, props, and effects, centered around the centaur, were attractive and gave the needed sense of character while maintaining ambiguity. They were a delight.
It should be mentioned that the staging felt unfocused too. The pacing of the play, like the walkers, started and stopped. When the story picked up pace, it would halt, causing traffic jams later on. For instance, the centaurs first attempt to stand was built in a choppy way, stealing the moments intensity. The moment when the walkers reach the wall was the most disappointing though. As the start of the climax, it needed the most unity between actors, design, and direction but constantly felt disjointed, creepily slow at one time, aggressively fast at another. Finally, the end, where the onstage audience is at last included, was so downplayed and small that it begged the question: Were they there for just that one innocuous moment?
I should state outright that I did enjoy this play. The acting was wonderful. The players navigated difficult text to express anguish, confusion, sorrow and the sense of being lost that follows death. The journey was tough and the participants displayed desperation and uncertainty. They made me want that same thing: To go there. The most thrilling was the centaur (Edward Christian) who was racing while stuck firmly in the ground and asked the important question: “You’ll come back, won’t you?” The midwife (Nora Achrati) and the cobbler (Rafael Untalan) built the most sorrowful moment together when they relived times with their young daughter, while the cast looked on with us. If I had more space I would praise all the rest of the cast.
Falling Out of Time is a universal story of loss and the actors show us that “there is breath in the pain.” Derek Goldman and the design team should be commended for tackling such a challenge. I wish the Theatre J admin team had provided more time for adaptation and concept development. That might have been what the play needed to achieve cohesion and do justice to Grossman’s complex story.