Total self-knowledge is damn useful in life, but in drama it’s a dampener. Almost everyone in Shelagh Stephenson’s play is so busy (over)explaining themselves that subtext evaporates. That’s surprising in a work that asks, among other things: If your son disappears, how do you cope? How and when might you cease grieving? Do we pay in this life for selfishness? Airing questions, however, is not the same as dramatizing them, and superficial handling and unsustained emotions keep “Enlightenment” from living up to its title.
Writer Lia (Julie Graham) and lecturer Nick (Richard Clothier) are an elegant couple falling apart because, six months ago, their student son disappeared without trace. Lia has called in a psychic (Polly Kemp, in regulation odd-person sandals), but Nick remains skeptical, because he’s a man.
Lia’s father (Paul Freeman) brings in Joanna (Daisy Beaumont), an unspecified “TV person” who talks in preposterous cliches — “Television’s a very potent medium” and “Suppress your distaste, that’s all I’m saying” — which we’re supposed to find absurd. Nonetheless, the family lets her make a documentary with them. As a result of the exposure, a young man with memory loss (Tom Weston-Jones) moves into their lives.
Having borne a slight resemblance to Bryony Lavery’s “Frozen,” an altogether richer drama about overcoming child loss, the play suddenly morphs into a melodramatic thriller cross between “Somersby” (missing person returns, but who is he?) and “Six Degrees of Separation” (seemingly helpless young man inveigles his way into smart home and forces his saviours to re-evaluate their luxury lives). Lia’s subsequent absorption with the idea of middle-class guilt and do-gooding also summons up Clare McIntyre’s “The Thickness of Skin.”
The plotting works within each scene, but the whole is awash with implausibility. There is little sense of the timeframe, which conveniently precludes audiences asking basic questions such as why Lia and Nick withhold vital information from each other, or why they don’t investigate worrying circumstances until a moment convenient for the playwright.
Even Stephenson’s ideas are flattened by overwritten, better-read-than-said dialogue. Distressed Lia is besieged by memories of her son “fresh-minted, like a sharp new penny.” When she loses it and slaps Nick, she is given the over-elaborate “I’m sorry I slapped you.”
Making his debut as a.d. at Hampstead Theater, a major London new-play venue, Edward Hall helms a wincingly modish production. Spooky back projections, suggesting the son trying to communicate from beyond, are a red herring, and the play misses no opportunity to underline the symbolism. “American Beauty”-esque, echo-y percussion music for spiritual emptiness? Check. See-through Louis Ghost chairs on all-white set to indicate expensive soullessness? Check.
The oddest thing about the production is that “Enlightenment” has already been given a major staging, at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, a fact unmentioned in the program. If that’s because Hall has engendered rewrites and we’re effectively watching a new play, that’s even more worrying for the future of writing at this address.