David Hare, one of Britain’s foremost playwrights, has the uncanny knack of being able to talk out of both sides of his mouth; he can write perfectly convincing arguments from opposing points of view. This fascinating ability is on fine display in The Vertical Hour, Lantern Theater’s newest show, written fourteen years ago—a time gap that both matters and doesn’t.
According to Hare himself in an interview, the title is a “wonderful phrase in combat medicine—the vertical hour—and that’s the moment at which somebody has been injured and you can actually intervene to be of use. It’s the moment at which you can most be of help.” Hare went on to say that the play isn’t just about the war in Iraq, but “a traditional Henry James theme of the difference between the American can-do spirit and the British cynicism.” Which side Hare is on is anybody’s guess.
The debaters are Oliver Lucas (Joe Guzman), a once-famous doctor now living quietly in the Shropshire countryside. His mostly silent son, Phillip (Marc LeVasseur), has been living in America with his girlfriend Nadia (Genevieve Perrier), a former war correspondent turned Yale academic.
As you might guess, a play debating the rightness or wrongness of the U.S. ‘intervention’ in Iraq involves a lot of talking. Hare’s characters are intellectuals who are highly articulate; the only action is the pouring of wine and the drinking of coffee, creating a challenge for the actors to hold our attention and for the director, Kathryn MacMillan, to fill the space theatrically. Even when the scene shifts from England to Nadia’s office at Yale, she debates two of her students (played by Sydney Banks and Ned Pryce) over the content of their essays for her course in politics.
There are some personal backstories which both echo the political narrative as well as providing some relief from the war stories: Nadia, who is clearly a danger junkie, had a romance in Sarajevo; we hear about Oliver’s awful marriage which scarred Phillip’s childhood badly and the death of a woman in a car crash. A pivotal moment in Nadia’s life was the time Nadia was invited to the White House to advise President Bush, making her persona non grata at liberal Yale; this exchange in our current political climate, is enough to make you weep:
Nadia: Also, in our country it isn’t just the person, it’s the office.
Oliver: He’s the president.
Nadia: In America… in America, that still means something.
Later, Oliver remarks, “When the people who make the law are lawless themselves, what can you do?”
The sets designed by Meghan Jones are impressive as is the lighting by Shannon Zura, creating the lovely soft light of an English dawn. The sound design by Larry D. Fowler, Jr. adds just enough tension to the proceedings.
[Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen Theater’s 10th & Ludlow Streets] January 9-February 16, 2020; lanterntheater.org