A young writer of graphically violent short stories is suddenly dragged into a police interrogation room and put in the hot seat. Gruesome short stories aren’t illegal in this nebulous totalitarian state, but murder sure is. It turns out that two local children have been found brutally murdered in a monstrous fashion that mirrors two of the writer’s grotesque stories. The comparisons are too detailed to be a coincidence. It’s up to two hard nosed cops, the writer, and the young man’s mentally handicapped brother to put together the pieces of why these unsettling stories appear to be coming to life. And the clock is ticking…a third child is missing.
It’s with this engaging premise that THE PILLOWMAN begins. To give away much more of the plot would do the play a great disservice, as there are several twists. While a few brief moments of levity are scattered throughout, this is a dark play. It’s constantly tense, disturbing and pulls no punches, literally and figuratively, and for all these reasons, it should not be missed.
The entire cast of the Players Club’s production deliver commanding performances that easily match what would be expected of a professional theatre. As the writer Katurian, Ben Storey has crafted an unexpectedly sympathetic character out of a very twisted-mind. He draws the audience in from the very start, seamlessly transitioning through sensations of fear, bewilderment, anger, and determination. Eric Jarrell and Phil Haggerty portray the two officers who shift between good cop and bad cop. Jarrell and Haggerty play off each other particularly well and dominate the stage. Thomas Robert-Irvin as Katurian’s mentally challenged brother, Michal (think “Lenny” from Of Mice and Men), captivates from his first appearance. His vocal inflections and physical mannerisms are well-defined and eerily authentic.
Strong performances constitute only part of the show’s success. It’s difficult to imagine this play being performed anywhere else because of the masterful way in which director Dave Ebersole has staged it. PCS’s intimate second stage is set up in thrust formation for this show, with audience on three sides. No matter where you sit, you’re close to the action, which effectively generates the necessary sensations of claustrophobia and intimacy. The actors’ blocking is balanced, ensuring everyone gets a good view. Throughout, the dialogue stays sharp and the pacing dynamic.
Lighting (designed by Alan Stamford) is similarly effective. An overhead lamp in the interrogation room is used for creepy effect. In other scenes during which Katurian narrates his stories, the lighting focuses impressively, with little to no spill. The musical choices (designed by Michael Loro), most of which sound like they come from a perverse music box, add to the overall unease.
There are a multitude of themes prevalent in THE PILLOWMAN. Suffice it to say, if you see it with someone, you’ll have a lot to discuss afterwards. The title comes from one of Katurian’s short stories in which a time traveler made of pillows pays visits to tormented people when they are young children and convinces them to kill themselves to save them from living their torturous lives. It takes utilitarianism to a whole new level of distressing and induces images of an extremely twisted Holden Caulfield hiding out in the rye.
I have no nitpicks. The only thing I again will emphasize is that this play is dark and disturbing. There’s nothing overly graphic shown, but the descriptions of violence, heavy language, and overall subject matter drop this show clearly into the “mature” category.
This weekend is your last chance to catch THE PILLOWMAN. Due to its intensity, it’s not a play you’re likely to want to watch again and again, but a one-time viewing of this splendid production is highly recommended.
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Dave Ebersole
November 8 – 23, 2013
The Players Club of Swarthmore
614 Fairview Avenue
Swarthmore, PA 19081