More often than not, when the question of “how do you want to die” comes up the answer is often “in my sleep” or “surrounded by my friends and family”. The hope of most human beings is that, when it’s our turn to check out, we do so peacefully and with someone caring by our side. In David Stallings’ The Stranger To Kindness (directed by Heather Cohn) now playing as part of The 2012 Frigid Festival we see what happens when neither choice is available.
Nance won’t come to the door, and this has her long-time friend Lena (Susan G. Bob) in a bit of a panic. In a burst of almost delusional optimism Lena has set up camp outside her friend’s door, choosing to believe that Nance is inside, fine, and just deciding to stay stubbornly silent. Lena proceeds to serve up coffee and deal out a hand of cards which she slips under the door. She incessantly chatters aloud to the empty corridor in the same manner one is urged to do at the bedside of coma victims. ”Keep taking … they can hear every word you say,” we’ve all heard. Lena seems to know that no matter where her friend is – on the other side of that door or somewhere else, she will hear her.
Soon enough Police Officer Greco (Antonio Minino), a beat cop, arrives at the scene. He’s a bit winded, but ready to take charge of the situation. Within moments he’s sized up what’s going on and his presence forces Lena to burst her own optimistic bubble. “When you came we were playing cards” she tells the officer. “But not really …” he remarks hesitantly, not sure what state this woman is in. “Of course not really,” she snaps back. At this moment, we know that everything she’s done up until this moment has been to stave off the inevitable.
Officer Greco goes on to break down the door and confirm what we’ve suspected all along … and while to him this is just another day on the job he has the humanity to understand that, for Lena, this is a sad moment. When Nance’s son, Paul (Mick Hilgers), arrives he’s all but an interloper; conversation alludes to Paul’s inability to live up to be the type of son Nance held out hope for, and his gruff manner and haughty attitude immediately makes him the odd-man-out in this newly formed group. Rather than stay and wait for the coroner and be subjected to further disapproval, Paul hurries off.
As the young officer and the aging woman wait together a strange but sure bond forms; it is the bond formed by strangers who meet briefly and need to pass the time together. It is not unlike the types of relationships one makes with people at jury duty or at the airport when their flight is delayed: polite … at times revealing, but built on the scaffolding of proximity and meant to be quickly dismantled. Lena knows this of course, yet welcomes the opportunity to tell old stories to fresh ears. She is a woman who once enjoyed an active social life filled with dinner engagements but now finds herself staring at a phone book which holds more dark black marks than names; evidence of those who have died and -however unintentionally- abandoned her.
A brief reappearance by Paul takes the story and shakes it upside down like a purse. In an effort to appear less monstrous Paul lets go a tirade of abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother, virtually devolving into a toddler demanding they see him as he sees himself. The very fact that he uses the tragedy of his mother’s death as a platform to defend himself and bash her is monstrous in and of itself, however he is long past the ability to reason that out. Is he justified? Perhaps. I once heard someone on a lowbrow talk-show say “There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. And I’m telling the truth!” This unintentionally humorous adage is nonetheless very real, and Paul is a perfect example of this.
“Being abandoned is different than isolating yourself,” Paul insists. From his perspective, his mother was manipulative (she would woo him to her home with false suicide threats) but ultimately wanted to be alone. Several facts do back this up; she didn’t give out her keys and kept people at a distance despite knowing that her health was failing. Lena was frustrated with this aspect of Nance as well, but had learned not to rock the boat. Theirs was a comfortable friendship, one of rituals and repetition, one which relied heavily on knowing the moves by rote. The less variation, the better. Now, with no more rituals to follow, Nance must make the choice herself – move further into isolation and end up like her friend? Or open herself to people and risk being abandoned? By the end of the play there’s a bittersweet question mark hanging in the air.
Director Heather Cohn does a skillful job of preserving Stallings’ inherent ambiguity about the unseen Nance. The scenes between Minino and Bob are both heartbreaking and charming; a sense of innocent wooing is present, the way a young boy will court his teacher. And while Minino’s Greco is obviously the one in charge of the situation it is Nance and her years of life that put her at an advantage, however disillusioning that may be.
The Stranger To Kindness is both a very universal story as well as a deeply personal one; bittersweet and melancholy with threads of hope and promise woven throughout. For so many, living alone is not a choice. However, The Stranger To Kindness shows that being alone does not mean you must live in isolation.
The Stranger to Kindness Company: D&A Productions Directed by: Heather Cohn Feb 29, 9:00PM Mar 01, 7:30PM Mar 03, 4:00PM $15.00 The Kraine Theater