The walls of the grim and grimy London bedsit show faint outlines of the pictures that once hung upon them—a gallery of absence. It’s a simple but gut-punching reminder that the two women in Chloë Moss’s This Wide Night are defined mostly by what they don’t have. Namely, as recently paroled convicts, second chances—followed closely by a sense of self-worth.
The squalid room belongs to Marie (Aila Ayilam Peck), the younger of the two former cellmates in Moss’s drama, now receiving its local premiere with Shattered Globe Theatre (produced in association with Interrobang Theatre Project). Her room is scattered with the forensic remains of takeout dinners and solitary boozing. Her small ancient TV has lost its sound—another on-the-nose metaphor for marginalized women who cannot make their voices heard.
But despite her obvious isolation, Marie’s not at all sure that she wants to welcome Lorraine (Linda Reiter) into her bunker-like retreat from the world. At first, Lorraine, out after 12 years for a violent crime we only hear about later in the play, seems like exactly the sort of needy and boundary-violating acquaintance we’d all like to avoid. Allegedly on her way to a hostel, she begs water from Marie. “My mouth’s as dry as a nun’s privates,” she declares, as she semi-surreptitiously tosses back unidentified pills.
But Marie takes pity on her and lets her stay. Or perhaps Marie realizes that, though she’s been out of prison longer than Lorraine, she’s still very much living as if she’s still in stir. Lorraine’s presence, irritating though she may be, at least gives Marie a familiar touchstone.
She’s also funny. The unseen man next door to Marie’s flat spends hours scouring the ground with a metal detector. “He lost his wife,” Marie offers by way of explanation for the neighbor’s odd obsession. “Is she made of metal?” Lorraine retorts.
This Wide Night
Through 11/13: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 10/25, 8 PM (industry night) and Sat 11/13, 2 PM; no show Thu 10/28, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, sgtheatre.org, $45 ($35 seniors, $25 under 30, $15 students).
Moss wrote her play based on women she met as a volunteer at a British prison. It got a New York production in 2010, starring Edie Falco and Alison Pill. But Georgette Verdin’s staging requires no star power. Instead, Verdin, Peck, and Reiter skillfully build the relationship between Marie and Lorraine out of shards of revelations. Moss’s script steadfastly refuses to flesh out many details about what landed them in prison in the first place. That opaqueness poses a stark pointed question for the audience. Why must we know all about their past—about anyone’s past—before we can summon sympathy for their present circumstances?
Lorraine wants only to reconnect with Ben, the son who was taken away from her. She torments herself over not being able to remember if his beloved duffel coat was blue or brown. She reads a book about space, marveling at the vastness and uncountability of the stars.
Marie recalls a game she played as a child, watching raindrops “race” to the ground and relating to the speedier ones as if they were the embodiment of classmates who had what she didn’t (mostly mothers who didn’t abandon them). She claims to be working at a pub, but the way she barrels through the door of the flat, quickly locking it behind her once inside, suggests something darker is going on.
The play unfolds through a series of short disconnected scenes over an indeterminate period of time. It’s set in 2008, but Marie’s world has so few creature comforts (her phone is disconnected) that it may as well be a sister flat to the one occupied by the characters in Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker almost 50 years earlier. These women are seemingly nowhere in the world; the paradox of their lives is that they are both invisible and seen only for the history they desperately want to move past.
But unlike Pinter’s world, where the menace of the outside world replicates itself in the destructive relationships of the three men sharing the squalid room, Marie and Lorraine seek some mutual comfort and understanding. To suggest that riding out a pandemic by sheltering in place is an exact parallel to life as a former con would be, to put it charitably, a helluva stretch. But this production carefully and subtly limns the everyday aggravations of too-close-for-comfort living arrangements, as well as the, well, comfort we derive from knowing at least one person is around to witness our life.
Moss’s play is part of a growing body of work about women struggling to adjust to life outside prison: in recent years, I’ve admired Kate Tempest’s 2013 drama Hopelessly Devoted (also set in Great Britain, and given a terrific production in 2019 at Piven Theatre) and Boo Killebrew’s set-in-Chicago Lettie, which lit the stage on fire at Victory Gardens in 2018. (I’d say all of them also owe a debt to Rhodessa Jones’s groundbreaking work with the Medea Project: Theater for Incarcerated Women.)
These plays go beyond the high-octane plot dynamics of Orange is the New Black to focus on the small relentless ways that women struggle to reintegrate with a world that never seemed to want them in the first place. When Peck’s Marie breaks down near the end and delivers a searing litany of all the things she fears, it’s almost unbearable. Will she bear it alone? Will the presence of another be enough to overcome it?
Moss doesn’t give us any sure answers. There are none to be found. But the stellar and raw performances of Peck and Reiter linger as the weak light of morning spills through the one window Marie and Lorraine have to the outside world.