December 16, 2017
The set for Alex Keegan’s production of Paula Caplan’s Shades at Cherry Lane Theatre initially strikes one simply – a living room, comfortably furnished. But when the eye scans with more intention it will see edges that are literally frayed, as though the house were freshly extinguished. It’s a subtle gesture that goes unmentioned by the cast of four – a fitting image for a story of information held internally, festering until malfunction ensues.
The play follows a fragmented family that, through further pruning, fills its gaps. Don, a divorcee and veteran who served in Vietnam, Val(erie), his widowed sister who protested the war, and their father, a recent widower who served in World War II. Val, played boldly by Ashley Wren Collins, is the primary driver of action, trying desperately to connect with her ill brother while working as a nurse for a paralyzed Vietnam vet, June, whom she quickly befriends in lieu of her brother’s distance.
What is established through exposition and developed in plot is a web of loss. Don and Val’s mother has been dead for two years at the beginning of the play. Don is already single. Val has been widowed for about a year, and she learns that June’s husband left her shortly after her paralysis. When Don’s cough turns out to be Agent Orange-induced terminal cancer, Val is moved to confess that her husband’s death was not an accident, but a suicide.
The spinning of this web is strung out by a pervasive withholding of information. Don and his father never share war stories with Val, who thinks they are being stingy, but realizes after inviting June for a family dinner turned storytelling session, the truly traumatic and morally ambivalent reality of combat. Her husband Sam quietly suffered from PTSD of his own service experience until his suicide letter elucidated how inconsolable his pain was. Don’s death uncovers a larger scale of withheld truth, from the government to its own soldiers, allowing the use of Agent Orange to compromise the health of its veterans for utilitarian reasons, which overwhelms his father with guilt for inspiring his son to an occupation that would eventually kill him – a guilt that leads to a climactic cracking of his forcefully maintained pleasant veneer.
This outburst scales us back down, leading to a more intimate release. Earlier, Val laments how the guilt of from husband’s suicide has left her unable to remember any pleasant memory they shared, self-withheld by a thick wall of painfully unanswered questions. At Don’s funeral, all having been laid out, the play’s final line is such a pleasant memory, finally unlocked.
The thematic presence of war sets up a hierarchy of conflict priority. Don never wavers from his fixation on larger issues, defending his country even as he dies. Valerie comes off comparatively selfish in her quest to figure out how she could have prevented her husband’s suicide. June bridges these moral paradigms, shedding truth on military willingness to sacrifice its own, but also revealing her intense desire for physical intimacy she fears she will never have again.
In a play of drawn out reveals, none of it is withheld from its audience. We bear full witness to the conflict and confusion within each character, emphasized through vivid performances erupting in Cherry Lane’s Studio Theatre. Collins in particular has a mannered delivery, perhaps signaling her character’s hunger for immediacy in communication, calling to mind the military’s guidelines to transparent communication: “What do I know? Who needs to know it? Have I told them?”
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews