On the program for its bleak double bill of Sarah Kane’s “Crave” and Neal Bell’s “Somewhere in the Pacific,” Potomac Theater Project announces its theme with the slogan “Love will tear us apart.” Paired with a photo of a weeping concrete angel, this could be a darkly grandiose joke. But judging by the productions, Potomac doesn’t kid around. Ever. Both one-act dramas are sturdily produced, with strong perfs especially buoying Bell’s play about gay panic on a WWII troopship. But while creative choices are intelligent, they lack the fever implied by works about violent passion.
The sole exception comes in “Pacific,” the second piece presented. Closeted Marine Hobie (John Stokvis) and openly gay sailor Billy (Michael Wrynn Doyle) are so transported by their illicit affair that they literally fly to the moon, hovering in front of it while they kiss. Director Jim Petosa — one of Potomac’s three co-artistic directors — has the men swing at each other on knotted ropes from opposite sides of the stage, stopping when they collide. The implication is that they’re still flying forward, delivering lines as they hungrily press against each other.
The moment adds animal life to Bell’s script, but the rest of the scenes are stiff. Blocking is ritualistically plotted, and a gong sounds during several transitions, as though this were Noh drama.
Bell’s writing supports the heightened choices, especially when the men’s dreams spring to life. But by choosing to work with the scribe’s symbols instead of against them, the creatives make it hard to engage emotionally.
In one crucial scene, when Billy gets humiliated, Petosa places the cast at unusual distances and elevations, underlining who has power. Add this to Bell’s bizarre stage directions and you get a scene that’s easier to analyze than to care about. Yet the scribe clearly wants us to feel. His program note even specifies his interest in how military homophobia affects the victimizer as much as the victim.
To be fair, it’s not just the production that keeps things grounded. Bell’s labored metaphors can thwart genuine feeling, especially in a pointlessly lurid dream about cartoonish Japanese soldiers mutilating a young Marine. But Bell still crafts plenty of moments that could move as well as provoke.
It’s fitting, then, that his play is paired with the late Kane’s. Her work finds beauty in despair, and “Crave,” a rumination on sexual and romantic desperation, crackles with both.
Director and fellow Potomac a.d. Cheryl Faraone stages the piece simply, with four speakers staring at us from their chairs. For 45 minutes, they take turns talking, each telling a separate story involving heartbreak and violence.
Subtle light shifts and occasional turns of the head suggest the narrators are connected. It’s possible that M (Stephanie Janssen) is mother to C (Stephanie Strohm) and had affairs with both A (Adam Ludwig) and B (Rishabh Kashyap). Of course, it’s also possible the other three are just part of M’s psyche, as implied by Faraone’s choice to put her downstage center.
But literal storytelling is not the point. Faraone encourages us simply to listen, letting the four voices wash over us with evocative sorrow. Ben Schiffer’s sound cues divide the play into beats, but they are more like pauses to let us catch our breath before the next wave of pain.
While the results are haunting, the emotions in “Crave” don’t have to be so monolithic. (The play has no stage directions, so directors are free to mold it as they choose.). But as with “Pacific,” the show works against spontaneous feeling. It asks us to find textures in suffering, not experience suffering amidst other states of mind.