In 1965, Brit scribe Edward Bond shocked audiences with his play “Saved,” in which a baby in a carriage is stoned to death by working-class toughs. It took decades before the drama was done in New York, staged by Robert Woodruff, now a.d. of American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. Now Woodruff is presenting another work of theatrical intensity with “Olly’s Prison,” originally a 1993 teleplay adapted by Bond for the stage. It receives its American preem in an uncompromisingly chilling production at ART’s new black box theater.
At 70, Bond is still exploring violence disguised by domesticity and medicated by social norms. And he is still doing it in ways that leave audiences stunned. Call it shock therapy for the theatrically blase. Simmering just below the surface of the ordinariness of daily lives, all hell can break loose with the slightest nudge.
In their small, working-class London apartment, where life is stupefyingly routine, Mike desperately tries to communicate with his sullen teenage daughter Sheila (Zofia Goszczynska). Widowed and emotionally wounded, Mike, in Bill Camp’s bravura turn of wild and raw desperation, pleads, threatens and berates his defiantly silent daughter in an escalating attempt to elicit a response — any response. But her body language of bleak boredom makes it clear she has checked out of the rituals and illusions of family life.
Paternal fury and madness erupt in a sudden act shocking for its tipping point (a cup of tea), bizarre beauty and catatonic reaction by the father.
In prison Mike is in a dazed and confused state not much different from the stupor he felt in his previous life. He has merely switched rooms. In David Zinn’s telling set, lit with rays of despair by Chris Akerlind, it really is the same room, with just the furniture rearranged. In the new theater’s fluorescent-filled space, the aud feels they’re in that same space as well.
Mike meets a disturbed cellmate (Thomas Derrah); a visiting female neighbor, Vera (Angela Reed), who seeks to give him hope from the outside world; and, fatefully, a young inmate on the verge of release named Smiler (Peter Dylan Richards), who hangs himself in the noose Mike intended to use on himself.
But Mike’s imprisonment isn’t the only one onstage. Smiler’s mother Ellen (exquisitely played by Karen MacDonald) is desperately trying to make sense of her son’s unexpected death and then, years later, is simply numbed by it.
Vera is trapped in her own chattering bourgeois fantasy of happy-ever-after — until that is shattered as well.
And Oliver (Mikey Solis), the victim of Smiler’s earlier crime in which Olly lost an eye, becomes a pawn for Sheila’s boyfriend Frank (David Wilson Barnes), now a policeman seeking revenge against Mike for the death of his daughter.
Frank’s disturbing and unrelenting orgasm of violence toward play’s end represents a horrifying perversion of justice and has echoes in contemporary chambers of authoritarian horror.
Amid the domestic ruins at play’s end, a pair of unlikely characters find the naked truth, and a grim and daring work gives the tiniest grace note of understanding.