Friday, October 24, 2003

Lord have Mercy: Kyrie eleison, Yarhamuka-llah

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With these words, "kyrie eleison" and "yarhamuka-llah," Christians and Muslims around the world have, for centuries, asked God for mercy. These chants, and others more sinister, were heard around the world after September 11, 2001.

In a modernist Manhattan apartment, Ben (Craig Bowden) sits motionless as the audience enters the Portland Stage Studio Theater. The air is murky — dust pervades the city’s air. In the background, a cell phone rings, sirens blare, police radios crackle, TV news anchors drone. There is no murmur of conversation usually heard when the audience is being seated.

Stunned silent, Ben can’t even hear the ringing cell phone in his hand. He is clearly a man overwhelmed — but by what? So many that day were struck dumb by the calamity; others by its call to address their lives’ main issues. Still others saw a chance to begin anew, to take charge of lives they had previously lived only vicariously, watching themselves from afar.

Invited into the living room of this studio, we watch as two New Yorkers, Ben and Abby (Christine Louise Marshall) adjust to the fact that their lives have been exposed to the sunlight, cast from the shadows of the Twin Towers after the collapse. It is a unique chance.

Many New Yorkers fell further in love with their city after that day; many left forever, seeking safer homes in smaller towns less likely to be targets in the future. People across the country re-evaluated their lives. Some married, others divorced. Children were conceived, jobs quit, careers reoriented. For the briefest moment, it appeared America could be reborn into a new world of unity, compassion, and love.

And then the president spoke to the nation, and echoed Ben’s words in Neil LaBute’s powerful play The Mercy Seat. Nothing changes in America, no matter the disaster, Ben tells Abby. "The American way is to overcome, to conquer, to come out on top. We do that by spending, eating, and screwing our women harder," he says.

This excruciating truth is only the beginning of the revelations, both cultural and personal, unveiled as the Mercy Seat, the Biblical covering of the Ark of the Covenant, is lifted away, showing the truth of what life and love contain. LaBute’s unshrinking gaze takes in a world torn apart by tragedy, and finds the moments of uncertainty, doubt, and opportunity.

He focuses on them, on how they affect the human condition, and inserts his crowbar a little deeper into the closed American heart. Bowden and Marshall — two of Maine’s best actors — are heartbreakingly compelling, playing to perfection their complex roles.

As their characters’ relationship is made clear, and their internal conflicts exposed, the tower of each character is built a story higher. Both actors exert control over the emotions of the audience, creating moments of palpable tension and physical release with the honesty of their acting. The range of emotions through which they move in two hours is exhausting and soul-opening for both actors and audience, eliciting laughter, tears, terror, and joy. Relief is the only one not fully present, and that is by design.

The magnitude of September 11 is amplified by their personal losses and the agonies of their solitary choices. Abby’s character is the voice of playwright LaBute himself, needling, poking, digging into Ben’s deepest soul, scrabbling to open his rocky heart. Initially, he fights it, but gives in eventually, seeming to know this is an opportunity he will never have again.

She names his fears, his options, states clearly the repercussions of choices he would prefer to make by obscure reference or implication. It is an excruciating process, as she forces honesty upon the unwilling Ben, compelling him at every turn to question himself and his motives.

He tries over and over to seize the chance he sees, but truth repels him, and ultimately leads to her fateful request, that he be honest and make the call he was about to make, before the towers were struck. Neither expects the fallout to be what it is, and the audience sits stunned as paired planes of truth crash into the twin towers of Abby and Ben, shaking both to their foundations.

The Mercy Seat
Written by Neil LaBute. Directed by Andrew Sokoloff. With Christine Louise Marshall and Craig Bowden. By Mad Horse Theatre Company, at Portland Stage Studio Theater, through November 2. Call (207) 730-2389.


• The new West End Studio Theatre in Portsmouth, NH, will open its first season October 31 with Artists’ Collaborative Theatre of New England performing three short plays about middle-aged women in awkward situations. WEST is the former home of Pontine Movement Theater, which now shares the space with New Hampshire Theater Workshop. Call (603) 926-2281.

Frank Wicks’ play Soldier, Come Home, based on his great-grandparents’ Civil War letters, played recently in his great-grandparents’ hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. It drew over 100 of Wicks’s relatives, as well as a video crew to tape the play for wider distribution. The play is also on sale at