In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus compares man’s existence to the figure from Greek mythology, condemned for eternity to push a rock up a mountain, only to have it fall to the bottom again. Yet the philosopher presents the image of Sisyphus in “silent joy,” where the universe “seems to him neither sterile nor futile.”
THE ISLAND, now onstage at the Lantern Theater, opens with two prisoners enduring a Sisyphean punishment, forced to shovel sand out of a hole, only to have it filled with sand from their companion’s hole. Under Peter DeLaurier’s direction, the scene is dragged out to an uncomfortable length, pressing upon the audience the quiet brutality of this interminable labor.
John (Frank X) and Winston (U.R.) return to their cell (simply and evocatively designed by Nick Embree) nursing the day’s wounds. Two black activists in apartheid-era South Africa, they are imprisoned on the infamous Robben Island (Nelson Mandela’s jail for 18 of his 27 years behind bars), enduring hard labor intended to break their spirits. John and Winston are beaten down but undefeated, and like Sisyphus singing poetry to himself they are preparing to stage a theatrical performance in front of the prison staff and population: the trial scene from Sophocles’ Antigone.
For much of the play, THE ISLAND’s drama is quiet; it demands your attention but doesn’t seize it. Yet through the prisoner’s conversation, we get a vivid picture of the cruelty of political oppression. The piece is carried by outstanding performances by Frank X, who is in my reckoning probably the best actor on the Philadelphia stage, and his excellent costar U.R. As I heard one audience member say, the performances were like instruction in how to act: nuanced and powerful.
Our attention is rewarded in the dramatic final scene, the play within the play, which emphasizes the parallels between the prisoners’ plight and that of Antigone, sentenced to death for disobeying a law of the state which she saw as going against the laws of the gods. John has been granted an early release and so has much at stake in making a theatrical statement. Winston is despondent at the thought of life in prison. But their belief in the justness of their struggle and the rightness of their ideals endures.
At the climax, Winston pulls off the rope-made wig of Antigone and says it plainly: “Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honor belongs.” The prisoners are bound together, but still dance, arms raised. As Camus puts it, “The struggle to the summit is enough to fill a man’s heart.” May 17-June 10, 2012, LanternTheater.org.
Published on Stage Magazine.