Photo by Jay FraleyAny play that begins with one insane asylum inmate admonishing another for shitting on the balcony and ends with a knife-wielding schizophrenic sounds tailor-made for the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company. Especially when we note that author Joe Penhall hails from the in-yer-face school of British playwrighting, that ferociously audacious academy of sexually politicized, polemically violent writers that RGTC faves Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane epitomize.
So it sounds odd to think of the word "restraint" when describing Some Voices, Penhall's 1994 breakout play. Yet this production is exactly that. For once, this is a play, and a production, in which what isn't seen and what isn't said stand out. It's not that Penhall's examination of mental illness and dysfunction among a small segment of Britain's lower class lacks episodes of graphic sex and violence. It's that those scenes actually serve, rather than define, what is, at its heart, a story about love and family and how difficult it can be to break those pernicious ties that bind.
Ray (Paul Pakler) is a schizophrenic released into the custody of his brother, Pete (Alex Dorman), who runs a café. His desire to assimilate hamstrung by mental illness and chemical dependence, the reluctantly medicated Ray stumbles upon an abusive bloke named Dave (Bob Tully) and his pregnant girlfriend, Laura (Brenda Kenworthy). Heedless of Dave's warning never to fuck with another man's misery, Ray befriends Laura, pouring petrol upon a simmering pot itching to ignite.
In director Steven Parker's hands, Penhall's play unfolds seamlessly. The characters' yearning for some semblance of normalcy seems universal even amidst hammers to the skull and gross dysfunction. A keen sense of humanity infuses the proceedings; you believe and empathize with these characters, their obsessions, flaws and sicknesses seeming uncomfortably familiar.
As Ray, Pakler's ability to make his quite insane character completely real helps make Some Voices compelling. He avoids physical or vocal idiosyncrasies, approaching the character as someone who, but for the grace of God or mild neurotransmitter disturbance, could be any one of us. Rather than freak or anomaly, Ray is just unfortunate, someone desperately close to lucidity who just can't quite get there.
Penhall is a superb writer; when one character muses that the most glorious sight is that of an empty bridge, the seemingly innocuous line takes on grandly poetic dimension. His ability to transcend his tale's sordid circumstances helps Some Voices seem less of a voyeuristic glimpse into the soiled underclass and more of a metaphor for the human condition stuck in neutral. His voice is mature and insightful, and that's probably why he's the first such confrontational playwright to earn a production at the more mature, conservative environs of South Coast Repertory (Dumb Show, Penhall's 2004 meditation on the culture of celebrity, opens Sept. 25).
Hiply leftist and relevant enough for more radical theaters, yet eloquent and composed enough for more mainstream ears, Penhall—at least based on this surprisingly subtle production—sounds like a voice to be reckoned with. In a time, and a culture, when outrage and irony are the currency du jour, his more measured approach to insanity on a personal and societal level feels disarmingly appropriate and alarmingly timely.
SOME VOICES AT EMPIRE THEATER, 200 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 547-4688. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2:30 P.M. ALSO THURS., SEPT. 29, 8 P.M. THROUGH SEPT. 30. $15-$18.