By Laura Harrington
Directed by Gary Mitchell and Normi Noel
Shakespeare & Company at the Stables Theatre
The Mount, Lenox, MA Through August 25th

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Laura Harrington's latest work, "Mercy", winner of the biennial Clauder Competition, is more of a tone poem than a drama, but it proves a moving piece of theatre in its well-wrought premiere at Shakespeare & Company.

Faith Morning (Annette Miller), a sculptor and the mother of three grown children, is about to die of cancer. Her loving husband, Steven (Dennis Krausnick), a boat-builder on Cape Ann, has dealt with his wife's decline as best he can, but her death will be a loss added to a plethora of earlier losses. Faith lost her sight to diabetes some years previously. The couple's only son, Daniel, disappeared during the Vietnam war. Their older daughter Liz (Corinna May) has estranged herself from her parents by marrying a successful brute and moving with him to a prosperous suburb.

Their youngest child, Annie Morning, introduces herself to the audience as a dughter born with webbed feet and second sight. Although Annie was her parents' treasure, surrounded almost to the point of suffocation with love, she ran away from home when she was a teenager, and has stayed away for almost seven years with only a rare postcard to let her family know that she is still alive. If Annie had told her parents in detail how she was living, it might have given them even more pain: she alludes to wild promiscuity, and membership in a faith-healing cult. Now she knows that her mother is dying-- Annie can feel her mother calling to her -- but if she goes home to her mother it will be as the angel of death. Faith is hanging on, praying for a last day of life, in order to be able to see her missing children once more before she dies.

Annie is the daughter born late, at her mother's change-of-life, the daughter who replaced the lost Daniel. Annie is fey. She has a light around her, and healing hands. She speaks epigramatically to her family and friends, and poetically to the audience. At times, Annie sounds suspiciously like a stand-in for The Author. In a performance less whole-hearted, or less subtle, than Elizabeth Aspenlieder's, the character might be insufferable. Aspenlieder's Annie is, as intended, a magical creature whose artifice makes the pain at the heart of the play bearable. Emily Dickinson describes the process: "After great pain a formal feeling comes ... first chill, then stupor, then the letting go."

The wide shallow stage at the Stables Theatre is divided into two parts for "Mercy". On one side is a wooden hull that Steven is working on with antique carpentry tools; on the other is Faith's stark white hospital bed, where she will lie hooked up to tubes. The wooden hull is a thing of beauty, and Krausnick works on it with the loving hands of a master craftsman. Later, the gleaming hull will unfold into a full boat, and the hospital bed will sprout color and comfort when Faith is carried home from the hospital to die in her own bed.

Under the unerring eyes of co-directors Gary Mitchell and Normi Noel, every physical object on the stage, every movement of the actors, is both functional and beautiful. They have contrived to make it credible that this is a working class family whose members have the souls of artists, and a mythic dimension. Sometimes the cast simply lines up across the front of the stage and speaks to the audience in turn: sometimes two or three naturalistic scenes will be playing simultaneously. The glowing colors of natural wood on the spare stage, the imaginative weight of the sea imagery, the meditative focus, the presence of the supernatural and the sense of deepening stasis -- "Mercy" has many of the aspects of a Japanese Noh play.

Certainly this can't be said to be a drama where nothing happens -- two people die, a battering husband burns down the house where he and Liz lived together, Annie and her childhood sweetheart make love in a boat, Daniel materializes from the dead and returns to death again. But none of these happenings seems consequential, and they are not arranged to form a plot. Each character describes, reflects, explains -- -the action of the play is in the language, as it circles the central experience of loss.

As play of language, "Mercy" couldn't ask for a better company to bring it to life. Each of Harrington's speeches gets the loving attention that its actor would ordinarily lavish on a Shakespearean soliloquy. Dennis Krausnick deftly mixes the gruff and the tender as the grounding father. Annette Miller's blind Faith is luminous and airborne, her senses magnified by the loss of sight, all that sensation zinging through a cancer-ridden body almost too frail to sustain it. Corinna May presents herself as the family's cynic, practical and outwardly-oriented: but she makes her few words as Liz the tip of an iceberg reaching down into depths unknown. Walton Wilson is a kind of sacred monster as Daniel. His physicality is so intense, so tied to the media images of the Vietnam vet, made up of tattooed muscles gone to fat and khaki vest and bandanna headband and stringy hair and nightmares and smoldering violence, that he threatens to bring the bridge between the worlds of spirit and flesh crashing down into sensationalism-- but he doesn't, quite. Ghost or revenant, Daniel is absorbed and transformed. into the right kind of poetry for the stage, vivid images that are accessible and mysterious at the same time.

This is "Mercy"'s maiden voyage, and a few things in the script could still use a bit of tinkering. The language occasionally falls short of its aspirations. I don't think the title is helpful, nor the family' s name. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction: the fact that there really is a Faith Popcorn predicting the vagaries of pop culture is not really an excuse for an impossibly symbolic name like "Morning"-- not without a back-story explanation that wouldn't be worth the stage-time it would take to tell it. Jason Asprey manages to make Annie's simple-minded suitor Foster Dade, who "believes in miracles", sympathetic and credible; but the fact the "Foster Dade" comes to the ear as "Foster Day" and insists on its opposition to "Faith Morning" is neither subtle nor helpful. In a few such niggling details, the quality of "Mercy" is strained.