Our personal identities and brands are often mistaken as portraits, preserved snapshots of a single moment, but in application they are much more like a composite. As Jews, we like to marinate in our histories, to reconcile and reconstitute our past selves. This can be a blessing and a curse.
In Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen,” now onstage at Jewish Repertory Theatre, this is partly by design. Margulies scatters his scenes around the present and the past, some set mere minutes before the one that just played and some shooting back a few decades to a more innocent time. This is a play about the passage of time as much as it is about visibility, as the title suggests. In skewing our focus, we are forced to piece this puzzle together by reviewing these characters’ evolutions, as well as our own life’s fragments.
Jonathan Waxman, the internationally famous American artist, is searching for himself in an English farmhouse a few hours outside of London, where a career retrospective is about to open. He has called upon Patricia, a former lover from college who has emigrated to Europe. Once carefree and romantic, she is now humbly settled in the secluded mud, working as an archeologist alongside her easily disgruntled husband, Nick. Theirs is a complicated triangle smudged with jealousy, regret, bitterness and longing.
Peter Palmisano, Josie DiVincenzo and David Lundy are our Jonathan, Patricia and Nick, respectively. Each is perfectly tailored for their part, strong in every combination and solo. This is how an ensemble should work together, by serving each other’s strengths and elevating their scenes to something stronger than their parts.
As Nick, Lundy takes the best advantage of his character’s most powerful monologues; he builds up his rage like a fire gathers oxygen. His quirkiness is on full display, too, eliciting confused, uncomfortable laughter from his near-wordless first scene.
Palmisano and DiVincenzo dance precariously around their characters’ arguments until they combust, like a well-written couple will do. Around the dinner table these passive-aggressive interactions feel a lot like Margulies’ “Dinner with Friends,” in which adults convene and complain for hours on end. These arguments feel more pressing, less hypothetical. Jonathan has an agenda to keep, a career to propel; Patricia and Nick would rather seclude themselves, digging for bones.
In a smaller role, Constance Caldwell sits in as a German journalist interviewing Jonathan about his provocative work. Her role in Jonathan’s self-exploration serves a greater purpose than her character does, yet she adds plenty of nuance to make us understand her pointed questions.
Caldwell’s accent is inconsistent and hard to identify, which distracts alongside Palmisano’s manicured delivery; despite this she does the journalist’s work proud. In a different way, DiVincenzo’s overreaching can throw off a discussion’s levels. She is most impressive when she takes her moment with a look and a knowing, nodding response. She plays her earthly character with the piercing punctuation of a city dweller always ready for a sidewalk debate. I imagine present-day Patricia to be rougher and more cryptic, but that’s just my interpretation.
The production’s design sets a well-orchestrated backdrop for these floating scenes. David Dwyer’s bare set includes a sweeping, dirtied canvas that highlights Margulies’ metaphors about art and life. Kari Drozd’s costumes are realistic and unobtrusive, fully dressing their characters’ lives. Tom Makar’s sound design evokes distance and mood from lights down.
As the production assembles itself, we get closer and closer to its focus, however the first act stumbles on its way to establishing a tempting rhythm. After an anti-climactic Act One finale, the second half kicks off with full steam and delivers to the very end. Usually it’s the other way around.
It takes a while to get there, but this view is worth the work.
“Sight Unseen” by Donald Margulies
Rating: 3 stars/4 stars.
Where: Jewish Repertory Theatre, 2640 North Forest Rd., Getzville.
When: Runs through May 13. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: $38 and $10. Available online and by phone (688-4114, ext. 391).