Be so kind as to hand me the straight razor. “And I And Silence,” a new, politically potent historical drama from Naomi Wallace, deals with the casually racist and purposely cruel conditions for female prison inmates in the 1950s. It’s a strong piece of writing from this season’s playwright in residence at Signature, sensitively mounted and really well acted. But the unrelenting fatalism drives the lyrical expression, reducing the two characters to helpless victims, puppets dancing to a preordained destiny.
Jamie (Trae Harris, an enchanting young performer in her Off Broadway debut) and Dee (Emily Skeggs, chalking up a good one for her resume) are teenagers when we meet them in Jamie’s cell in some unidentified prison in an undisclosed (but vaguely Southern) American city in 1950. Young Jamie is black and Young Dee is white, so it takes courage as well as ingenuity for the uneducated and dim-witted Dee to keep sneaking over from the “white wing” in her campaign to make friends with smart and feisty Jamie.
Scribe Wallace, a MacArthur Fellow whose several prize-winning plays include “One Flea Spare,” writes tough plays, but in a lyrical tongue that hints of her native Kentucky. Although she has a showier rep in the UK than she has here, she gets a really fine production from the locals.
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater is the smallest of the three theaters that make up the Signature Center, and for some reason, this intimate house seems to inspire directors and designers to real feats of creativity.
Rachel Hauck (resident set designer at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference since 2005) has made smart use of the four-sided stage to create a sense of confinement within an open space. Jamie’s stark cell contains a sink and a cot and little else, and in the sepia color tones of Bradley King’s lighting design, it suggests young lives being lived in half-light. But a steep set of stairs and surrounding metal grids connect this lower-level “black wing” of the prison with an upper-level catwalk that leads to the unseen “white wing.” With assistance from sound designer Elisheba Ittoop, Dee’s pounding feet beat out a tattoo of young lives going nowhere fast.
The same spaces and the same well-chosen props serve just as efficiently to create the little room where, nine years later, grown-up Jamie (the radiant Rachel Nicks) and Dee (Samantha Soule, as scrappy as Dee should be) are living together. During their years of confinement, the poised and endearingly self-possessed Jamie did her best to instruct Dee in the rudiments of being a valuable house servant. (Unfortunately, she never managed to teach her how to read and write.)
Now keen to put their housekeeping skills to work so they can earn a living, the friends industriously wash out their modest housedresses (which go over the lovely white slips designed by Clint Ramos), and apply for housekeeping jobs in the posh neighborhoods of this unnamed city. Under Caitlin McLeod’s emotionally well-calibrated helming, Nicks and Soule (who earned an Obie in “The Hill Town Plays”) tenderly convey both the optimism of these high-spirited young women and the slow-burning despair as their hopes and dreams crumble to dust.
Wallace writes heartbreaking passages about the girls’ longing for social recognition and human intimacy, while doling out cryptic references to the jobs they can’t seem to hold and the men who never stay around for long. But the details are annoyingly fuzzy and the drama of the play is essentially packed into the final minutes of the play, when the friends stop lying to one another and admit to the humiliating cruelties that have broken their spirits and eaten away at their souls. That final scene is powerful and the thesps face it head-on, but it can’t drown out the sound of all those construction gears turning.