- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2007

If writers paint pictures with words, then Irish playwright Enda Walsh is a graphic novelist whose work is like comic-book artist Frank Miller’s Sin City series in the use of forceful lines, dark themes and gritty film-noirish touches.

With 2005’s “The Small Things,” a U.S. premiere staged by the contemporary Irish theater company Solas Nua, Mr. Walsh’s stark black-and-white imagery wells in your mind like blood blisters, yet his play dwells on the persistence of language and how words are vital to life.

Words, not pictures, are what keep two elderly persons alive. Mr. Walsh sets “The Small Things” in a bare, Beckettian landscape — an unnamed country (the dialect is from Northern England’s Lancashire) where the Man (Chris Davenport) and Woman (Kate Debelack) live separately on two lone hilltops. Their memories are triggered by the measured rings of alarm clocks and, although far apart, their stories eventually mesh and collide.

They are the last of their kind, survivors of a grisly regime that took over their small village when they were children.

At first, meanderings about china figurines, meringues, soggy fries and a municipal swimming pool lull you into thinking the Man is a doddering gent awash in wistful sexual reminiscences about his mother. The Woman, whose wacko father was fixated on timetables and symmetry, has shrunk from society much like Laura Wingfield from “The Glass Menagerie.”

Gradually, matter-of-factly, they begin to recount a harrowing tale — similar to Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” or Margaret Atwood’s “A Handmaid’s Tale” — of subjugation and torture by the Woman’s father and another madman who cut out the tongues of the villagers and their children in an effort to restore order and efficiency through a movement they called “The Silence.”

Mr. Walsh brilliantly uses color — the blue lips of the children as they stand outside of the swimming pool waiting to see if they will be chosen for “The Silence,” the red blood streaming down icy-pale bodies, the brown of the river that washes them clean in a perversion of baptism — to convey the primary horror of totalitarian rule.

Language is equated with freedom, speech with defiance. The effects of forced silence are felt decades later as the Man’s and Woman’s monologues are buttered generously with words. They linger over “lumpen” and “languid” with the luxury of people who have nothing but empty hours and endless verbiage with which to rail against the quiet.

Director Kathleen Akerley is infinitely at ease in this dreamlike, insular world punctuated by ticking clocks, dripping water and strange echoes. One wishes she were clearer in the depiction of the geographic and mental distance between the two characters because they often interact, giving the impression that they are in the same house. Miss Debelack does not behave like someone of advanced years, yet her husky delivery and soft, bruised demeanor convey the fragile state of someone who has been through an ordeal. Mr. Davenport, sporting the bushy beard of either a confirmed bachelor or a hermit, deftly flits from keen awareness to the fuzzy ramblings of those who take solace in the details of childhood.

“The Small Things” may not always add up, and maybe it is best to try not to be too literal — just to let yourself be carried away by the flow of Mr. Walsh’s language, which takes familiar patterns of speech down strange, twisted paths.

***

WHAT: “The Small Things” by Enda Walsh

WHERE: Solas Nua at the Flashpoint Mead Theatre Lab, 916 G St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Through Sunday.

TICKETS: $15 to $20

PHONE: 800/494-TIXS

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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