With Michael Hollinger’s talent for carefully plotted setups and appealing dialogue, SING THE BODY ELECTRIC gets off to a fine start and cruises along. The electric incident in question doesn’t come up right away. While all the groundwork is laid out you can live in the play as it sets up lines of tension that build in intriguing short scenes where the central figure tends to keep to the side.
Here’s the layout: Doris (Kimberly S. Fairbanks), a therapeutic counselor, lives with her teenage daughter, Jess (Kishia Nixon). And Lloyd (Anthony Lawton) lives with his teenage son, Blake (Trevor William Fayle). Lloyd is coaching Jess in high school Physics and he has started private counseling sessions with her mother, Doris. Blake, Lloyd’s damaged son, won’t talk in Doris’s therapeutic group. Got that?
The play pairs off into criss-crossed scenes:
mother/ daughter & father/son
mother/father & daughter/son
mother/son & father/daughter
And briefly they’re all together.
Completely separate from the main action, Claire (Mary Lee Bednarek) an engaging group-therapy junkie, provides a window on the action along with the weird comic relief of her blindly hopeful commentary on her experiences with violent men. And she idly wonders aloud about a boy in one of her therapy groups who won’t talk.
Doris and Lloyd are comfortably played by old hands Fairbanks and Lawton who know how to do this. Affable single parents, they show tentative and promising signs of friendship: A dinner invitation. He brings flowers. Unfortunately, revelations emerge, and for them things go south from there. With a title like SING THE BODY ELECTRIC it sounds like a play where a lot of skin might be exposed, along with skin dialogue. But this work isn’t going there. In Walt Whitman’s unrelenting poetic catalog of the body, I Sing the Body Electric, the body is the link between the soul and the world. This play references that concept, and the body electric refers specifically to the physical and psychic effects of a lighting strike on a body. Lightning on a golf course killed one person, but Blake, also hit by lightning, survives. Trevor William Fayle gives a remarkably nuanced performance as Blake, who has scars outside and scars inside.
Kishia Nixon’s unrestrained and admirably aggressive Jess, is very interested in what happened to Blake. She keeps pushing and asking questions, as if Blake were her personal physics experiment. While Jess can’t keep from talking, Blake has to be coaxed to speak at all. Her full court press, more effective than her mother’s gentle therapy, may be bringing him out of his shell. Or not.
Artistic director Deborah Block constructs and maintains a pervasive genial, often funny, yet still somber and prickly mood. This is not an easy achievement. She moves the action along with finesse, through short meaty scenes, deceptions, pivotal moments, and fluid entrances and exits that at times converge. You feel this play, it has wonderful components. Yet by the end it confounds more than it enlightens. What, exactly, has happened? We can only conjecture. With crackling noise and explosive lighting effects, anticipation builds for a dramatic reveal. Blake’s psychic scars are becoming painfully clear, and his physical scars, of which much has been made, must surely be as striking. But at their brief unveiling these fine-line etched scars are hard to see. Is the enigmatic ending a leap for Blake, who, without Jess’s insistence couldn’t move on? We need Hollinger’s play to take a stand and access the wild, longing recesses of the heart. Is there more still left in the playwright’s head that didn’t make it to the stage?
[Theatre Exile. The Latvian Society, 531 N. 7th St.] April 19 – May 13, 2018; theatreexile.org