A Welsh soldier disabled in the Iraqi war has asked his mother to end his pain. She weeps as she smothers her son, Dai, with a pillow, so he reaches up to soothe her by stroking her hair. It’s a gesture of comfort. Such cruel kindness fills “The Pull of Negative Gravity,” a new play by Jonathan Lichtenstein that welds suffering to love. Winner of a 2004 Fringe First Award in Edinburgh, this mostly excellent production from Mercury Theater Colchester, presented in the Brits Off Broadway series, tracks a farm family collapsing from poverty and the aftermath of combat.
Though haunted by the current war, the show is less a political screed than a reflection on how any tragedy wounds its survivors. There is so much hurt onstage — soldiers are wounded, marriages fail, money runs dry — that when Vi (Joanne Howarth), mother of Dai (Lee Haven-Jones), defends her right to mourn, it feels like the play’s thesis. “Do not ask me to give up my grief,” she demands. “Grief’s soft corners take me, cherish me. … (Grief) is my friend, my dark companion, my stone.”
Auds looking for easy hope will be disappointed. Yet the play’s sadness is entrancing, marked by perfs that boil with repressed emotion. For example, as Dai’s beloved Bethan, Louise Collins need only rest her fingers on a wedding gift and it’s clear she’s fallen out of love. All this restraint gives cathartic muscle to the few high-volume moments.
Director Gregory Thompson is equally subtle as he stages jumps through time and space. With only the tilt of an actor’s head, he communicates a flashback that begins midsentence or a living room scene that suddenly moves to a field.
Ellen Cairn’s set supports these rapid shifts. Inside and outside blur, since the family furniture is the same mottled gray as the nearby mounds of rocks. The kitchen table even grows out of a boulder, which makes a perpetual statement about the instability of the life presented onstage.
Occasionally, the staging is more fluid than the script. A clunky subplot has Bethan, who works as a nurse, discovering one of her patients is an Iraqi soldier. There’s a vague statement about universal victims of the war, but the undeveloped point plays like a halfhearted nod to current events.
The lasting relevance here is not in combat specifics but in the family’s perpetual loss. With exquisite detail, “The Pull of Negative Gravity” relates a struggle that everyone, regardless of their political moment, will face.