We don’t want to talk about that,” chorus the three abject, cowed women at the barely speakable core of “Five Kinds of Silence,” although it’s playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s dubious tactic to parcel out revelations like so many prurient hand grenades, however muted the bearers of the bad news. What the two daughters and their mother are trying to ignore is the legacy of a brutal, incestuous father whom the children have just murdered and whose memory lingers on in the potent bequest of fear. By play’s end, everyone involved in its horrific scenario has chronicled the kind of behavior whose real-life variations are all too cruelly apparent to anyone following the average day’s news. Why, then, is “Five Kinds of Silence” considerably more soporific than it is searing, notwithstanding some first-class acting, notably from the luminous Gina McKee? Not for the first time, one feels that child abuse has supplanted the Holocaust as the emotive theatrical issue de nos jours, as if merely to state the unsayable were in and of itself drama. Here’s some more news: It’s not.
Stephenson’s award-winning play was first heard in 1997 on radio, and it’s possible one might feel more benignly toward its dramatic inadequacies in a medium that allowed one to do something else at the same time. In the theater, however — and despite Ian Brown’s undeniably sympathetic and evocative staging — the play constitutes an unrelieved wallow in misery of a particularly unleavened sort.
Working from the same kind of material, Paula Vogel’s brilliant “How I Learned to Drive” brought feistiness and wit to characters far more complex than the hapless northern English family that Stephenson, author of “The Memory of Water” and “An Experiment With an Air Pump,” puts on view. One doesn’t so much bleed for this blighted lot as feel trapped in a cliche no less real than the sentimentality that the British (rightly or not) are forever ascribing to American plays. “Five Kinds of Silence” is this week’s example of English Drear, complete with the requisite rain.
For all the atrocities it describes, there’s not much to animate the play beyond numerous ironies, most of which we have already gleaned for ourselves. It’s pretty obvious, for one thing, that any prison would seem considerably freer to two systematically abused children than life with the most fearful imaginable father: The point emerges more subtly from Hugh Vanstone’s shadowy (and characteristically expert) lighting than it ever does from the play. Elsewhere, attempts at a barely articulate poetry mostly involve images of light and dark that can’t help but seem borrowed. It’s as if — given the awful familiarity of her scenario — Stephenson is struggling to find within it any dramatic surprise, once the wrenching implications of the title (not to be revealed here) have played themselves out.
What’s left is an acting class in which some major talents make their way earnestly and sad-eyed through the unyielding text, Peter McKintosh’s smart design — a landscape looming above the family’s confining brick surrounds — rescuing the writing from the claustrophobia that it describes. In the play and (later) film of “East Is East,” the wonderful Linda Bassett brought a fiery vigor to the role of the wife-as-victim that lifted her working-class character nobly and with humor well beyond the realm of stereotype. In “Five Kinds of Silence,” playing a wife and mother whose domestic abrasions are far more severe , the same performer has one marvelous moment late on luxuriating in the symbolic liberation offered up by mushrooms on toast.
Otherwise, the role consists largely of staring at the floor, her self-mutilating fretfulness punctuated by bursts of rue, while Tim Pigott-Smith’s stern-faced father runs roughshod over the whole brood — including, in one ill-advised passage, the family goldfish.
That leaves McKee and Lizzy McInnerny as the two 30-something daughters whose own woeful pasts are narrated to various officials standing in mostly silently for the audience. McInnerny’s clinically depressed Janet narrates a letter to the same uncomprehending father who denied anyone in his home a recourse to tears: the moment has the air of a dramatic set piece, with McInnerny the only one of the play’s four leads ever to suggest she is acting the part, not being it.
That could never be said of McKee, the linchpin of last year’s “Notting Hill” screen ensemble (she played Hugh Grant’s disabled friend), whose performance as Susan prompts empathic silences well beyond the reach of the title. “Is the room tilted?” she asks early on, conveying with the simplest of gestures an awareness that it’s not the room that has been upended but Susan’s interior world. Even when the script lapses into cut-rate Virginia Woolf (“We feel the waters closing over us”), McKee monitors the nightmarish price paid for survival. “You keep going,” she says in a soft and eerie singsong that casts its own lingering spell long after the more blatant shocks of “Five Kinds of Silence” have themselves been silenced.