Cactus Theatre

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

The Cactus Theatre’s production of Tennessee Williams’s Talk to Me Like the Rain and Let Me Listen is so good I cringed with recognition and embarrassment: those private lies, those infidelities–both in spirit and in body–belonged to all of us watching as much as to Williams and the performers.

Paired with Horton Foote’s The One-Armed Man, Talk to Me Like the Rain starts off an evening titled “Last Rites,” which explores death, desire, personal deception, and public hypocrisy. At first glance the two one- acts don’t seem compatible–the Williams piece is lyrical and moody, the Foote piece jaunty and violent. But both stories concern lost, tortured souls who yearn to confess their sins but dread accepting responsibility for their actions. And in both cases, but particularly in Talk to Me Like the Rain, the Cactus Theatre shines.

Talk to Me Like the Rain begins slowly, almost excruciatingly. It’s the morning after a bacchanal. There’s a woman on a chair, staring at her lover on a rumpled bed. Her eyes shift as he stretches and yawns, but they don’t settle on anything. She stares off, looking at some lost horizon or parallel universe, wistful and hopeless at the same time.

But if watching him wake up is painful for her, the act itself is wrenching for him. His stretching isn’t relaxing, but rather a further tightening of muscles. His yawning isn’t a need for oxygen, but a kind of silent scream. He doesn’t want to face the day, or her, or himself.

The rest is a reckoning, a long, poetic dialogue about love and shame. “Vicious people abuse you when you’re unconscious in the city,” he tells her. “I’ve been passed around like a dirty postcard.” When they finally, tentatively, begin to make love, it refuses to be the balm they both seek. He is too desperate and hungry, and she is too hurt.

His sin is obvious: he’s been out, irresponsibly, breaking whatever intimate contract they’ve signed together. Hers is less clear but still powerful: her love, however much she may want it to, cannot satisfy his soul, or hers.

But what they want is not forgiveness, that simple pardoning of sins. They want absolution, a wiping clean of the slate. Forgiveness requires acknowledgment, even repentance; absolution, on the other hand, demands that there be no record at all of the infraction. It calls for a mutual forgetfulness, a willingness to trust even after trust has been broken. It seems inevitable that gaining absolution means losing something, whether it’s pride or respect or hope.

The ending to Talk to Me Like the Rain is shattering, and a credit to Moira Brennan and Bryan Burke, who play the anguished couple. And director Robert Ellerman deliberately makes the pace just slow enough that the lovers’ pain is practically unbearable.

By the time the curtain opens on The One-Armed Man, with its happy- go-lucky country music intro, anything seems like relief. This time the action focuses on a confrontation between a cotton gin operator, C.W. Rowe, and a former employee of Rowe’s named Ned, who lost his arm to the gin in an industrial accident. Out of his mind with desperation, Ned has come to ask Rowe for his arm back.

Rowe doesn’t want to see Ned because he doesn’t want to hear his accusations. He builds up his confidence before the meeting by berating his bookkeeper, a limp little man named Pinky. It’s here, when Rowe boastfully presents his civic vitae–fraternal memberships, charitable contributions–that we see he is really terrified underneath. But as in the Williams piece, the truth is unavoidable.

Rowe is not so much afraid of Ned as of being morally responsible for Ned. But Ned isn’t looking for acceptance of responsibility–he literally wants his arm back. The two of them, like Williams’s lovers, want absolution: a clean slate, a divine intervention. But Ned will remain armless no matter what either of them says or does.

The ending to The One-Armed Man is easier to see coming than the ending to Talk to Me Like the Rain, not so much because of the script as because of a pair of small yet critical falterings on the part of Michael Shuler, who plays Ned. Shuler needs to better pace his character’s fury: he worked up to full temper early in the play and had virtually nothing left in him by the time the script called for catharsis. His poor planning gave away the ending.