This past weekend, Canaday B entryway was a microcosm of typical freshman weekend activities—full of students on their way to Annenberg, doing laundry, or heading to the library to get a start on their next p-set—except for one room, where an entirely different scene was unfolding. “A Quiet Place,” written by Canadian playwright Brendan Gall and directed by Samuel A. Hagen ’18, ran over the weekend in Hagen’s dorm room, Canaday B-12. The room has a history of experimental theater: it was also used as a performance space by playwright, producer, and former resident, Randy Weiner ’87, of American Repertory Theater renown. Plays often rely on elaborate lighting, lavish costumes, and richly decorated sets to entertain; “A Quiet Place” featured none of these. But, in spite of some elements that made the play feel unfinished, this 80-minute production was never boring.
During the play, all signs of a college dorm room were erased. Black curtains covered the walls, and the set consisted only of a chair and single lightbulb. The play began in complete darkness. The light flickered on for a moment, and the audience saw a man doing pushups in the room. The light came back on, and a chair appeared in the room. The lights came up for a third time, revealing another man tied to the chair. What followed was an evolution of the relationship between two men, Henry (Thomas W. Peterson ’18) and David (Nicolas E. O’Connor ’17), stuck together in this black room without windows or doors. David initially seemed to be the victim and Henry his disturbed torturer, but the divisions between the two faded away as David realized that Henry was not his captor but an ally, imprisoned alongside him.
The premise of the play was utterly unrealistic—two men trapped in a room with no idea how long they’d been there, how they’d gotten there, or if they’d ever return to the lives they experienced before—yet they handled it in ways that felt completely familiar and even comedic. David taught Henry chess, Henry did tai chi (or a strange imitation of it), and they told each other stories about the life they remember before. Henry told a story about removing the heart of a tortoise and watching the animal writhe in agony, alluding to the characters’ own experience. The actors engaged in ordinary, even childish, activities as if they were in a normal situation, making a scenario that was completely impractical more accessible for the audience.
Peterson’s portrayal of Henry was superb; he managed to balance the elements of the character’s rationality and irrationality so that he seemed alternately relatable and deranged. He believably inhabited the character of someone who had indeed been living in a black room for an undefined amount of time. Peterson’s Henry clearly needed David’s companionship right away, but then grew to also admire and love him. Indeed, with the passage of time and the benefits of human company, Henry gradually emerged as the more sane part of the duo, beginning to comfort and reassure David. While at the beginning of the play the arrival of David sustained Henry, by the end Henry had become the influence that grounded David.
O’Connor also skillfully handled David’s transition from the outside world to the agonizing and endless life within the black room. At the beginning of the play, David despised Henry but eventually came to rely on him, a shift that O’Connor portrayed convincingly. The only dissonant note in O’Connor’s performance was that his entrapment didn’t elicit as dramatic a response as the situation would have seemed to invite. He was stuck in a black room without windows or doors, with a seemingly crazy man and no way to measure the passing of time; despite this, O’Connor’s David didn’t seem particularly upset or fearful for his life.
One of the most distinctive features of the play was its setting: a small space with an audience of only 12 per performance. The intimate staging was both one of the production’s greatest strengths and one of its weaknesses. The audience was so close to the actors that the show almost seemed to come to life—except when the single lightbulb illuminated the stage, the rest of the audience was also in the spotlight, intruding on the world of the play. While the use of Canaday B-12 has an interesting backstory, the production space made the play feel more like a dress rehearsal than a finished production.
The title “A Quiet Place” is a misnomer, as the production was driven forward by dialogue and the development of the relationship between Henry and David. The actors’ nuanced depictions of their characters were captivating, drawing audiences into their emotional life and their experiences within the black box. The play was so engaging that upon leaving the theater and entering back into the everyday college routine, it almost felt as if the door to the room had finally been found—as if Henry and David were finally free.
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