Caitlin Duffy (sitting), playing Emma Batten & Elizabeth Dimon, playing Audrey
Photo by Tim Stepien
Palm Beach Dramaworks has staged a new, highly charged family drama by Bruce Graham, “The Duration,” born from its Dramaworkshop. The play was given a virtual reading by Drama (in the) Works last year. Graham is not new to PBD, having had his “Early One Evening at the Rainbow Bar and Grille” staged in the 2003-04 season.
Although “duration” refers to time, its root means “to harden.” There is that and letting go in this affecting but frequently unsettling drama of love and loss, the consequences of 9/11. As serious as it is, the play is laced with humor, some dark and some laugh-aloud, the way real people cope with heartache.
You also could call this a murder (of the spirit) mystery play, and Graham keeps the audience in suspense as to where it might lead, with a startling climax and a touching resolution.
Audrey Batten is a history professor at a Catholic university, FDR’s administration being her forte. She’s well-known but a “low-budget Doris Kearns Goodwin,” as she self-deprecatingly acknowledges. She advocates sharp, rational thinking and liberal values — until 9/11, when her son dies in the World Trade Center (her husband was killed by a drunk driver the year before). Her former scientific reasoning is not helping her grieving heart.
Seeing someone in a hijab at the university serves as a traumatic catalyst; Audrey leaves her academic surroundings without notice and rents an isolated cabin in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
Has she lost her mind in a crisis of anger and values? In pursuit of an answer is her daughter, Emma, suffering as well from the loss of father and twin brother.
PBD veteran Elizabeth Dimon is ideal as Audrey, projecting two personas, one nurturing, as with the feral cats she adopts around her rural oasis, and the other consumed with rage while she deals with the indescribable pain of losing a child. Dimon reaches into the depths of her character to reveal hatred for the people who caused that loss while she projects a tough exterior to Emma and her good friend Douglas, as well as to herself.
She even finds redeemable virtues in her rural neighbors, whom she once would have dismissed as rednecks but now sees as regular people, even artists among them. “These people are out there in the real world,” she says. Emma shares her mother’s grief and her academic world as a poet. (“Nobody ever retired on a hit poem,” her mother reminds her.) She frequently retreats to a support group in Newark, dealing with her pain and suffering over the death of her twin, Eddie, and her fear about what has happened to her mother, heretofore a rock of stability.
In her PBD debut as Emma, Caitlin Duffy effortlessly glides from tense scenes with her mother into monologues to the support group the audience imagines.
Emma’s favorite poet, Pablo Neruda, was known for his nightmarish surrealism. Duffy projects her character’s sense of confused hopelessness. She feels her world falling apart, her mother even buying a gun and taking target practice in the woods. To Emma’s incredulous “Where did you get the gun?” Audrey answers: “Walmart. It’s America, Emma!”
Here is another layer to the play: the role guns play in the American sense of power. Duffy reaches real emotional depth at the denouement when she cries out: “I need my mother!” Emma is not the only one worried about Audrey. Douglas is a colleague and close friend whose life in academia seems to have reached its own boiling point as, bored and frustrated, he considers stepping down. He is not only a college administrator, but also a priest, and he and scientific thinker Audrey engage in clever banter.
He is incredulous that Audrey is living in such a ramshackle place, unkempt and looking like a bag lady.
It’s good to see John Leonard Thompson back on the PBD stage as Douglas. He is frightened for his friend and mines that concern in a somewhat fractious manner as only a skilled actor could.
So many themes run through this inventive play, but the arc is the divisiveness in this country. “Political correctness” permeates the discourse. What these characters go through to get to their resolution, will leave the audience wondering whether we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past. As Audrey articulates, every generation through history seems to have its crisis. Isn’t at least one generation entitled to relax? What is to become of our children and grandchildren living in constant tension?
J Barry Lewis directs this play with a sure hand, bringing insightful intelligence into the action. This is his distinctive vision of the playwright’s intent, examining the loss of a child and the implications for a woman such as Audrey. He focuses on the power of anger to blind her to this new, wrenching reality and her need to go through the stages of grief to find release.
The striking scenic design is by Michael Amico, who captures the rustic cabin with a dilapidated décor that reflects the sadness of the characters. Trident shapes in the set serve as atmospheric reminders of the Twin Towers.
Kirk Bookman’s lighting design shows the dappled leaves, changing to the deeper colors of the fall, and follows the action from Audrey’s cabin to Emma’s therapy sessions with distinctive lighting changes. The cinematic flow avoids blackouts, keeping the audience’s attention.
The sound design is by Roger Arnold, who incorporates subtle sounds of the rustic scene, including birds, crickets and those feral cats. He signals Emma’s transition from the cabin into her group therapy with urban sounds. Disturbing gunshots offstage show Audrey’s delight in her newfound “power.”
Award-winning Brian O’Keefe’s costumes reflect the times and the emotional state of the characters. Audrey arrives at the cabin professionally dressed, but, as her spirit hardens, she slips into a disheveled state, physically and emotionally. Emma’s numerous outfits provide an eclectic, bohemian look. But as the characters reconcile, their dress becomes more harmonic.
“The Duration” is the kind of play Palm Beach Dramaworks does best: family dramas. To see it come together from the initial readings to the fully staged world premiere is nothing short of thrilling.
You can see it at PBD through March 6.