I have a confession to make. You see, up until the current theatrical season, AltDaily covered only theatre on the Southside.
I didn’t decide we should expand our radius to include the Peninsula, Smithfield, and Williamsburg until last September, and only then because folks from those areas complained they felt snubbed by AltDaily, just as they had by our predecessors in local cultural journalism. I am abashed that for the first year of my tenure as this website’s theatre editor I was too busy smelling my own Norfolk farts for such an endeavor to have occurred to me unbidden. Such a mindset seems especially hypocritical since I’ve always been so ardently unimpressed by anything to do with New York. Art, after all, is where you make it. And let me tell you, the Williamsburg Players are making some damn fine art up in the Historic Triangle, where I would not previously have expected to find it.
The Williamsburg Players should first of all be commended for selecting an appealing season, including a few plays about which the audience may not know much aside from perhaps being aware of the titles. Such was the case with Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, which I reviewed last November, and such is the case with their current production, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation.
All I knew going into the play was that the 1993 film adaptation provided a young Will Smith with his breakout role, and proved to the world he really was a talented actor (as if that very special episode of The Fresh Prince where Will gets shot wasn’t proof enough). Six Degrees of Separation is a deeply intriguing play, as evidenced by its four Tony award nominations in 1991. The plot centers on a wealthy white couple whose high society evening is interrupted by an injured young black man. Paul, the charming and highly educated son of a societally important movie star, isn’t seriously injured, and by way of gratitude whips up a gourmet dinner out of leftovers, and then regales his hosts and their company with sparkling conversation, adverting passionately to multiple subjects, including his erudite understanding of art and cinema. But is he really who he claims to be? The twisting roller coaster plot takes so many scandalous and heart-squeezing turns I really can’t tell you any more, as there are no fewer than half a dozen points at which I could totally spoil it for you.
Michael Empson, in his Director’s note, emphatically asserts he is not presenting us with a play that is about race, class, or otherwise encumbered with any sort of political message, but rather a simple unfolding of interrelated experiences as events take their course. I would argue that to take a play, which on its surface seems to beg a director to apply a veneer of personal interpretation, and to instead render it simply as a story about people having relationships with each other, is, given the current state of our society, some kind of statement in and of itself. It is, in fact, perhaps the most eloquently underplayed statement a director could make. No one is shoving any kind of ideology down your throat with this show—one simply observes, and draws one’s own conclusions. To this end, Empson allows his cast to create fully fleshed-out characters, but shrewdly draws them back from laying bare any ethos that might influence the audience toward a certain point of view. Certainly the characters in this play are subject to some monolithic cultural ramifications of society at large, but we are spoon-fed nothing and must do our own thinking about issues only parenthetically touched on in the text.
Abigail Schumann and Jim Dwyer, as the upper-crust middle-aged couple around whom the play revolves, have good chemistry and draw us in through their point of view. (Schumann’s performance is especially noteworthy, as she narrates the events of the play with frequent asides directly to the audience.) The rest of the cast all perform nuanced character roles with outstanding aplomb, especially Ginger Ambler, Sam Miller, Vince Zangardi, Michelle Greensmith, and Frank Connelly. And I should certainly not fail to mention Rico Robinson, who portrays the enigmatic Paul with a tantalizing degree of commitment. Who is Paul? What is Paul? Why is Paul? Robinson never gives us the answers, but his performance bluntly dares us to approach these questions.
That’s what Six Degrees of Separation ultimately is: an agglomeration of questions about its characters’ motives and presumptions. This is expressed succinctly by the interplay of Brian Wrestler’s scenic design with Scott Hayes’s lights, which – stark and simplistic as they both are – effectively place the action of the play in a void, drawing attention to character and motive. Gun to my head, I suppose I could nitpick here and say that the bedspread behind the scrim could have been of a darker color that wouldn’t show when not lit, or that the coffee table was obviously assembled out of existing stock. But then there is the spinning double-sided Kandinsky painting which overhangs all of the action. If anybody on the set crew is reading this, please tell us in the comments how that effect was achieved! John Trindle’s sound design, although tasked lightly in this production, supports the action quite well. Phone rings, issuing from the darkness offstage, help to augment the ethereal style of the abstract presentation. Emma Cross‘s costumes are likewise thoughtful and effective, particularly on the younger members of the cast, whose characters allow her to draw from a more varied palette.
Empson’s dreamlike staging embraces and compliments the production designs while acknowledging the characters’ unspoken inner lives and thus nudging the audience toward considering how we might react in similar circumstances. Not making a statement indeed! I see what you did there, Mr. Empson. For the past couple of years, I’ve been of a mind to thoroughly examine the racial and societal construct in which we collectively live, and despite the director’s protestations otherwise, Williamsburg Player’s Six Degrees of Separation makes a profound statement by not making a statement; instead it asks questions, and leaves us to search ourselves for our own answers.
Six Degrees of Separation runs thru Feb 4. Thurs & Fri 8:00pm, Sat 2:00pm & 8:00pm. Call (757) 229-0431 or click here to reserve your seats. Dude. Seriously. Go see this show. I really want to read what you thought about it in the comments!