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Limitless Terrain 

Pinter's Alaska celebrates the richness of the human heart and mind

Wednesday, Apr 10 1996
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Midway through the one-act A Kind of Alaska, which is the final work in an evening of four short plays by Harold Pinter at the Aurora Theatre Company, a doctor explains to his patient that she's been in a 29-year sleep; that while life has continued for her family, she herself has been marooned in "a kind of Alaska." The play, based on the book Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, M.D., re-creates the moment in which a comatose victim of sleeping sickness is returned to consciousness via an injection of the drug L-DOPA. It's perfect Pinter subject matter, involving as it does vast unexplored regions of the mind and -- perhaps more crucially -- the moment at which a long silence is broken and filled with words. As seen in this beautifully directed (by Tom Ross), minimally designed (sets and lighting by Richard Olmsted), and splendidly acted mini-overview of Pinter's work, the Alaska of the title is a territory of the heart that is fraught with danger and rich with resources.

It's not often we get to sample a range of any playwright's work over a single evening, and these artfully chosen pieces (presented chronologically) serve to entertain as well as to conjure the more familiar works.

The first offering, Applicant, was written as a revue sketch in 1958. It has a Monty Python feel to it, and seems to be trying to reassure us that Pinter isn't all grim enigma; he can be silly and entertaining. Of course, as the program tells us, Applicant was revised in 1964; we can only speculate about the changes.

Timothy Flanagan plays the applicant of the title, appropriately named Lamb, who is at the mercy of the ultracorrect Miss Piffs (Stacey Ross). It's every job-seeker's nightmare. He has apparently been through a pre-selection process and has been called back for psychological testing to determine his "suitability." The process involves electrodes and earphones and searching questions about his relations with women. It's funny and sinister and alerts us to the beats within the beats of Pinter's timing -- and the virtuosity of this ensemble -- that will be of paramount importance for the duration of the evening.

A small sample: Brisk and businesslike, Miss Piffs tells Lamb that "We like to subject [applicants] to a little test." That is the unadorned line. But Stacey Ross adds an ironic pause no longer than a nanosecond before "test" that throws poor Lamb into the beginnings of confusion. She goes on more and more broadly, her focus sharp as a laser: "Are you often ... [pause] ... puzzled by women?" Glorious piece of timing. Pinter's hallmark of style -- deliberately enigmatic dialogue, here tongue-in-cheek -- has been introduced along with his most pressing thematic concerns: a sense of bewilderment and deep-seated terror about the state of relations between men and women; and, not secondarily, their apparent inability to communicate with one another.

Night (which seems to prefigure Betrayal) eavesdrops on a couple reminiscing about how they met. The Man (J. Michael Flynn) fondly recalls romantic details that the Woman (Penelope Kreitzer) insistently contradicts. Low, husky jazz strains accompany them, echo their dissonance, and provide the perfect background for the Man's tender refrain, "I will adore you always."

In Silence three people sit separately in squares of half-light, as though keeping a night vigil at separate windows: Rumsey (Flynn), an older man whose wife has apparently left him and who hasn't interacted with people since; Ellen (Stacey Ross), who may or may not have been married to Rumsey, and who passes her evenings with an unnamed female "drinking companion"; and Bates (Flanagan), a stable hand whose romantic yearnings for Ellen remain unrequited. Ellen serves as both men's token female and provides a link as she moves back and forth between them. She is saved from being a purely symbolic presence by the power of her poetic introspections: "Around me sits the night," she says. "Am I silent or am I speaking? I need to be told things. I seem to be old."

Between carefully measured portions of silence and language, the actors weave a fabric of despair that is utterly heartbreaking. But as each character reaches for a fragment of insight to make sense of him- or herself, each is saved, in a sense, by unbounded wonderment at the natural world: the sky, with its racing clouds; the reliability of animals; the reassuring limitlessness of the horizon. True, the writing is eloquent. But these players fill the words with fervor and intelligence and create dramatic passion without the distractions of histrionics.

The concluding one-act, A Kind of Alaska, manages to combine all the above elements in a final tour de force. Deborah (Kreitzer) sits motionless and staring in her hospital bed, everything starkly white in a starkly white room. Then, as Hornby (Flynn) sits next to her, watching and waiting, she speaks. Slowly, carefully, and tenderly, he introduces himself as her doctor, acquaints her with the circumstances of her awakening, and the shocking news that she has been asleep for 29 years.

Kreitzer's Deborah is by turns a tragic adult and flirtatious adolescent. She can't seem to grasp what has happened and, thoroughly disoriented, inquires about her family, all of whom were around her on the evening she took sick. Flynn's Hornby is the ever-gentle and grateful witness to the miracle of her awakening.

Deborah's sister, Pauline (Stacey Ross), who is also Hornby's wife, enters, and, thanks to Tom Ross' insightful staging, the focus shifts to the painful barrenness of their marriage coupled with the disorientation of recovery from a seemingly incurable disease. All three are dressed as for a dream, in shades of white and gray (costumes are by Cassandra Carpenter). All three are in their own Alaska: "I am a widow," Pauline says. Hornby's reply to Deborah -- "She is a widow. I have lived with you" -- is both explanation and admission.

It is at this point that Hornby tells Deborah patiently, as though to a child, that she has been in a kind of Alaska, by which he seems to mean that she has been far away in a frozen state. The line started me thinking about how little these English characters seemed to know of Alaska: While it surely has its frozen reaches, it is inordinately rich in natural resources and boasts a proud, independent population. Pinter, of course, may have had this irony very much in mind. For all his existential terror, his work as represented in these short plays seems to celebrate the limitless wealth and resources of the human mind. As performed by the splendid company of Aurora actors, what might appear on the page to be barren and frozen here teems with life, humor, and -- most vividly -- love.

A Kind of Alaska (and Other Locations) runs through April 28 at the Berkeley City Club; call (510) 843-4822.

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Mari Coates

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