Is the heartbreak in the pivotal scene of “Port” more extraordinary for the leading character Racheal (Kate O’Flynn) and her ex-boyfriend Danny (Calum Callaghan) or for the rapt audience? Impossible to judge. There’s plenty of pain in Simon Stephens’ 1998 epic of the everyday but, against all the odds, he underscores everything with hope. By the end of Marianne Elliott’s audaciously paced, boldly staged, sublimely acted production, the stage glows with compassion.
“Port” begins its 14-year span with 11-year-old Racheal and her hapless 6-year-old brother, Billy (Mike Noble), restlessly stuck in a car on a cold night in their painfully nondescript Northern hometown of Stockport with their increasingly exasperated mother, Christine (Liz White). They’ve been locked out of their flat and Racheal is getting on her mother’s nerves with constant questions.
Garrulous and still young enough to be unselfconscious, Racheal amusingly bleats and blurts out her thoughts, dreams and fears, one of which is that their mother will leave them. Cutting forward two years in the following scene, Racheal’s innate shrewdness is revealed as we discover her fear has been realized. In this and further scenes, Stephens charts Racheal’s halting progress through troubled adolescence and into awkward adulthood, marriage and beyond.
As gradually becomes apparent, the inertia of the initial scene — and the those that follow it — are a metaphor for how trapped everyone is. It’s a tribute to designer Lizzie Clachan and lighting designer Neil Austin that the mostly two-hander scenes illustrating the engulfing financial, social and emotional claustrophobia of Racheal’s life is rendered across the wide open space of the National’s almost abandoned Lyttelton stage.
There are no extended speeches of self-knowledge. Instead Stephens writes dialogue wrought out of petty arguments, short-fused passions and frustrations. What’s truly remarkable is the eloquence he gives his characters even as they wrestle with their inarticulacy.
Elliott’s command of the nuance and subtext of Stephen’s writing is absolute, not least because she helmed the play’s 1998 premiere in Manchester. Her understanding of the strength of the mood and tensions expertly laid out beneath the text allows her to give key moments time to breathe and to act upon audiences’ imaginations.
The easy way through this depiction of Racheal and Billy’s impoverished, fraught, aimless lives would have been to write a dystopia. Stephens take the much harder route of searching for light and energy in what could have been a portrait of near-despair.
He’s helped immeasurably by Elliott’s handling of her spot-on actors. No one is allowed to wallow in characterizations. Even though people are stuck, the production has momentum. Its energetic flow against almost insuperable odds is embodied by the character of Racheal who is onstage throughout.
O’Flynn’s vibrant National Theater debut is astonishing. It’s not so much the technical business of aging up from a child to a 24-year-old woman; it’s more the active connection she makes between her character’s dream of a life and the audience.
The final scenes of understanding have outcomes with a startling emotional authenticity that is as rare as it deeply moving. Like much of the play, the climax could have been sentimental, but the fusion of text, cast and direction forbid such weakness in favor of truth. Stephens’ and Elliott already have a hit on their hands with her production of his adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.” In final moments of “Port,” as Austin’s light shines on O’Flynn’s upturned face, it’s clear that this collaboration is, if anything, even purer and finer.