Eveybody’s got an inner monologue, even people in comas, or near-comas—as we learned from Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And oftentimes, there are marked differences between our inner monologues and the things we say aloud. We censor or simplify or simply ignore our inner voice when speaking to others. And so, there’s a natural conflict there, as we struggle to quiet thoughts that are unpleasant or inappropriate. This conflict is at the center of Jenny Schwartz’s play God’s Ear, now playing at Vineyard Theater.
The main character in the piece, Mel (Christina Kirk), is in something of a waking coma due to the depression she’s suffering after the drowning death of her son. The play is built out of Mel’s struggle to overcome her depressive and guilt-ridden inner monologue. Mel’s husband Ted (Gibson Frazier) is also present and grieving, but we come to understand him only through his distance from his wife. He’s on a business trip that he doesn’t want to end, during which he meets a woman at an airport with whom he engages in a brief affair. But, like the other characters in the play, his uncomplicated motivations read as an invention, narrated by Mel. We seem to see everything filtered through her.
What’s most interesting and challenging about this play is that the words themselves act as both the plot and the character. In this world actions cannot speak louder than words because there are no real actions. The only defining act in the story is the death of the son, which takes place before the play begins. The actors, the director, and the audience must decipher everything else from words. The director, Anne Kauffman, who has made something of a specialty in dealing with text-driven pieces, teases out a quiet and satisfying sense of momentum amid all the syllables. But a lot of the ups and downs remain in the hands of the playwright for a piece like this.
Deft writing in this style relies on a playwright who can track when the audience’s attention begins to drift, even cultivates it just enough before surprising them, pulling them back in. And Schwartz demonstrates that deftness more than a few times, particularly in the moments where small chunks of dialogue are repeated verbatim only minutes after they were spoken for the first time. It forces the audience to reboot: “Where are we? Where were we? What did they say before? Does it mean the same thing this time?” But there are also litanies in the play that are less effective, particularly the longest at the center of the play, when Kirk’s character is called on to rattle off an endless stream of verbal clichés. For a language play, balancing those moments is a tricky job and they feel a bit indulgent some of the time.
The overall impression of the piece and this production, is that we’re visiting an insulated reality—a largely uninhabited world that revolves around a single character and her depressive state—an impression reinforced by the constant references to Helen Keller, echoing Mel’s inability to hear or see the world outside. The only consequences are emotional and self-inflicted, and the only available remedy is words. Thank goodness our real lives are not so constricted.
The supporting cast really shines in this piece, particularly Rebecca Wisocky as Lenora, with her crisp energy and humor, along with brilliant timing. Unfortunately, one of the most colorful supporting roles, the poor Tooth Fairy (Judith Greentree), ends up as more of a whimsical set piece than a character. With very few lines and little impact on the play she seems to have been added simply to contrast with Mel’s grey palate. Another stand-out in the piece is the extremely clever set design by Kris Stone, which offers pleasing surprises and bursts of energy throughout.