he English play “hang,” receiving its American premiere in a superbly acted Remy Bumppo production, leaves its audience hanging for a good while as the dialogue slowly oozes out bits of information about the disturbing history leading up to the present scene. It’s a cryptic, clever, language-oriented drama, befitting a playwright, debbie tucker green, who spells her name, and all her plays’ titles, with only lower-case letters.
Two white women (Eleni Pappageorge and Annabel Armour), dressed in ultra-neat professional suits, lead a black woman (Patrese D. McClain) in jeans and an army-green jacket into a room. The fluorescent lights flicker on via motion sensors, illuminating a sparsely furnished space with just a few chairs, a small table, and a water cooler.
When: Through April 29
Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $42.50 – $57.50
Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
The names of the women go unmentioned. The two hosts express themselves in exaggerated politeness, offering tea, coffee, anything at all. The visitor views them distrustfully, impatiently. She has been here before, we learn, a few years earlier, when something apparently very terrible happened to her, something so bad that no matter how much the bureaucratic duo say that they understand her feelings, she insists that they don’t, and can’t. When one asks about her children, a stare is followed by, “Y’know.”
Nobody is very interested in sharing, so communication drips out in halting half-sentences, each side waiting for the other to take the lead. It’s a delicate dance of euphemisms and platitudes, of nods of practiced sympathy on the one hand and annoyed uneasiness on the other.
Eventually, though, and thankfully, the vagueness of it all dissipates. Even if all the details don’t get divulged, we learn enough to know what’s happening, to understand the decision that must be made about the woman’s victimizer, and the “development” that complicates it. We come to understand why the two bureaucrats speak in empty language, doing all they can to portray an impossible, even infuriating neutrality. There are protocols for this type of thing, you see. Rules to follow. A “client” to represent.
The aesthetic approach here, to invest us in the moments of deflection rather than action, can be considered in line with Samuel Beckett’s analysis of James Joyce’s work: “His writing is not about something,” Beckett observed. “It is the thing itself.” In green’s play, there are themes to be sure — crime and punishment, justice and revenge, racial inequality, the nature of bureaucracy, a system’s inability to work for victims — but they are simply there, portrayed directly rather than discussed and debated.
Director Keira Fromm clearly understands how it is the specificity of the seemingly vague that matters, that generates both curiosity and humor. The actors are always fully engaged. As the visitor with the decision to make, Patrese McClain depicts an ever-increasing sense of power, even while she convincingly exposes her physical and emotional vulnerabilities.
As the lead bureaucrat, Eleni Pappageorge provides the perfect display of professional courteousness, until she realizes that everything she does is doomed to injure when she genuinely means to help.
Annabel Armour is probably the most fun to watch of them all, largely because her character is often bewildered by the sub-text of the exchanges. And she gets the best monologue — the centerpiece of the work, in fact — delivering a litany of gruesome details with the anesthetized disinterest that only comes from years of experience. It is cringe-inducing and genuinely funny at the same time.
The work is brief — ninety minutes — and involving. Due to cultural differences, I expect it plays quite differently in the U.S. than it did in England, but it remains fully accessible. Our countries may not always share an approach to criminal justice, but we do share a language, and on both continents that language can be used to humanize or dehumanize, depending on our choices.
Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.