Susan Murray’s Without Shoes, a curious little one-act, sets out to take a metatheatrical journey into the dark night of the soul–though its route is decidedly cute and lighthearted. The play begins with self-described “new-age performance artist” Sally Yaddo (Murray herself), dressed in black pumps, black tights, and a white T-shirt with a big purple question mark on it, standing behind her dressing table, preparing for tonight’s performance. She tells us that her main objective is to reach out to us, though she also warns that “bonding takes time, especially if it’s temporary and among strangers.” Almost immediately, before this particular stage reality has had a chance to gel, a voice announces that the house is empty and the show has been canceled, and a young man carries Sally’s table brusquely offstage. Sally is left staring at her audience, wondering how the house can be empty when people are staring back at her.
This jarring opening, though it’s a bit forced here, has great theatrical potential. Murray seems to want to shake things up, running slightly ahead of her audience, trusting that we’re intelligent enough to keep up. She seems more intrigued by confusion than clarity: soon a freaky lady in yellow, Yerma Burden (Cathy Eimerman), appears to Sally and informs her that she must take a journey on “the road”–perhaps the theater itself. In the first five minutes, absurdity threatens to overwhelm.
Murray successfully exploits the tensions created by these conflicting theatrical realities during the first half of her play. Trying to make sense of things, Sally decides that her journey must be some kind of preparation for a performance–perhaps even an audition–which will allow her to “find her audience.” An audience, though, is something that has always eluded this artist. The highlight of her career, she tells us, was “landing a part in a TV series as an extra in the opening credits.” She was even featured in an issue of Never Heard Of magazine.
These hilarious anecdotes provide the strongest moments in Without Shoes, not only because the material is well written but because Murray is making fun of herself and her own lack of recognition. Charmingly, she casts herself as the lead in her own play and then tells us she’s no one we’d be interested in anyway. (Denise Randol plays Sally on Saturdays, reportedly so that the playwright can see her role from the perspective of the audience.)
As the play continues and Sally’s journey becomes more literal, however, the confusions become overwhelming. She meets the Keeper of the Gate–a disembodied voice–to whom she must surrender her ring. Then she encounters the King of the Road (Robert Dunlap), to whom she must give her shoes. Third she meets the Comic (Gregory DeMatoff), to whom she gives her life story, and he quickly alters it to make it funnier.
Encountering these mysterious figures is rather like meeting different parts of the self, to whom certain offerings must be made. As in most dark-night-of-the-soul stories, one is made whole by encountering and accepting the unknown. But the sketchily drawn characters don’t have much psychological depth, much resonance. And the offerings seem arbitrary. While the objects have sentimental value for Sally–the ring was thrown at her during a show, the shoes were purchased specifically for performances–that significance is not dramatized, not woven into the fabric of the play. Sally simply states her attachment to these objects–she doesn’t really seem to have much at stake, giving them up.
Structurally, the play loses momentum during its second half, particularly because the staging of the journey becomes increasingly awkward. Several times Sally walks back and forth on the stage, trying to decide where to go next–a gesture that seems especially false since the limits of the stage have been clearly acknowledged.
Despite these shortcomings, Without Shoes demonstrates a certain simplicity and sincerity that rings true. This is a modest, bare-bones production entirely without airs, and no one in the cast pretends to be an accomplished actor. But certain lines seem simple, heartfelt truths: “Try to pay people back; it’s all we can do.” “Sometimes the best journey is taken in one place.” And the actors’ honesty illuminates them.