After Gen X

Superior cast at Theatre Memphis gives voice to playwright Nicky Silver’s spirit.

by Hadley Hury

ittle Theatre at Theatre Memphis is the site through March 1st for Nicky Silver’s Raised in Captivity, a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, evening of theatre that asks, among other questions: What is the true nature of forgiveness? And, is to have known the capacity for love, in the end, more important than having been commensurately loved? Silver’s Pterodactyls was well staged at Little Theatre two years ago under the direction of Anthony Isbell; that production went on to win state and regional awards in the 1997 AACT/FEST competition. Raised in Captivity, which received nominations for both Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards and won the Drama-Logue Award, is also directed by Isbell.

John Maness as an imprisoned killer in Raised in Captivity.

The very best thing Isbell has done this time out is his casting: M. Michele Somers, Anne Marie Caskey, Art Oden, John Maness, and Brett D. Cullum comprise one of the strongest ensembles of this theatre season.

Playwright Nicky Silver’s greatest strength – at this point in a still youthful and, one trusts, evolving, career – may be his capacity for designing theatrical equivalents of the kaleidoscope. The perspective he shares with his audience is that of looking through a glass darkly at the evanescent boundaries between the horrors and the hilarities of being human. His plays defy even such amalgamated generic descriptions as that favorite late-20th-century catch-all, “dark comedy.” The audience is hard-pressed to sustain its balance on the fine line between laughs and tragedy in all of Silver’s works, especially Pterodactyls and the more recent The Food Chain.

The plot of Captivity, true to Silver form, renders descriptive comment irrelevant. We have a writer (Cullum) and his sister (Somers) who ultimately break through their lifelong estrangement after the death of their mother; the sister’s husband (Oden) who tires of dentistry and takes up painting; the writer’s psychologist (Caskey), whose own self-hatred seriously undermines her ability to help others; and an imprisoned killer (Maness) who corresponds with the writer.

In both substance and style, Silver’s theatre seems to aspire to a sort of phantasmagoria of modern masters; there are flashes of Albee’s caustic wit here, shades of Pinter’s absurdist psychic despair there, and, perhaps less obvious but nonetheless apparent, a sense of the tragicomic poetic emotionality of Tennessee Williams. Indeed, had Williams enjoyed a second wind (and a critical arena less eager to see his blood) and followed the artistic path that seemed to beckon him in the late 1960s and ’70s, he might have written plays, beyond his efforts with The Gnadiges Fraulein and Out Cry – experimentally structured and unabashedly metaphorical – that would have borne a more evident kinship with the plays Silver has been writing for the past decade.

Tom Wingfield’s opening narration for Williams’ The Glass Menagerie tells us that, unlike the magician who offers us illusion masquerading as truth, he will give us “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Presumably speaking for the playwright, Tom lets us know that he hopes to move us with his melancholy remembrance of desperation and fragile hope, but not to shatter us. We will leave the theatre, as Tom left St. Louis; and, whereas Tom, as he tells us at the play’s end, will never be spiritually free of the quagmire of obligation from which he has extricated himself, we can escape whole, with our lives.

That is what Silver does with the hard truths he brings before us; he frames them with metaphor and absurdist humor, affording us a bit of distance. He almost always nails the humor. Even at those moments of their most piercing insights or gut-wrenching emotion, his plays can score a wondrous laugh that, for all its bizarre unexpectedness, seems stingingly yet somehow reassuringly right. He has yet to grasp as surely the power of his absurdist poetics; the invigorating first act of Raised in Captivity is excellent, and its originality earns its keep in our imagination. But the second act implodes like an aimless, overattentuated abstraction, derivative of a number of better works ranging from Williams to Beckett to the films of Luis Bunuel.

There is soul, an intelligence, true daring, in his work, however, that makes it exciting to watch; it’s a career to follow. And in Isbell’s fine production, we stay alert. Even though Silver’s denouement is somewhat disappointing, this cast, especially Caskey and Somers, keep us riveted. Like Beckett’s men killing time in Waiting for Godot, or the dinner-party guests who never quite get to eat in Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the characters of Raised in Captivity seem somehow undercut, stranded, in the second act. It is a testament to the excellence of the performances in this production that we eagerly keep our eyes open, as well as our hearts and minds, right up to the final fade-out. n

Raised in Captivity

Through March 1st
Little Theatre at Theatre Memphis

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