It is rare, I think, for a playwright to appear on stage in a play that they have written. A biographical one-person show, an historical impression of some great man or woman à la Mark Twain Tonight, yes, certainly, it is quite common, but in a play? Not so much. With The Lighthouse, playwright Elizabeth Sampson has pulled off a remarkable feat having written three short plays that are rife with deep emotion and crackling, smart dialogue that feature two actors playing six roles. She then goes on to bring her diverse characters vividly to life in sterling performances partnered with Matt Kirkwood who matches her in dramatic excellence.
The scenes are all set late at night in an East Village bar, The Lighthouse, that is devoid of a bar tender, who is somewhere, not here, doing something, we don’t know. Doesn’t matter. In “Irish Coffee,” a man, Mr. Kirkwood, comes in and sits down at a table. The lights focus on him briefly then fade to black. When the lights come up he has a drink. A woman enters with a certain cheerful weltschmerz. Since there is no bartender, the man goes behind the bar and fixes her a stiff Irish coffee. They are in their late forties perhaps. She was married for twenty-five years and now bitterly divorced. As the two converse, the man reveals himself; he too has a world-weariness. The woman sparks with him a bit, but backs off when he reveals his clerical collar. This is not a grim scene, but rather one of intimate exploration. The language is smart, the banter funny and entertaining, and a resolution, beyond that of kindred spirits, impossible.
In “Rocky Shoals,” Shirley and Simon seek refuge in The Lighthouse, when, in a storm that has bollixed up the airport, their cab driver dumped them off as they were trying to find a way to get home. The pair is in angry frustration with their situation, and bitter and unpleasant with each other. Their banter is grimly amusing, calling to mind a George-and-Martha-situation, a long-married couple with a sad issue that divides them. In their existential angst, they pick at each other in cruel, hilarious ways.
There is an ethereal quality to “It Was the Lark.” It begins with a lone woman seated at the same upstage right chair and table as the priest in the first scene. She is in that same, tightly lit spot for a brief time, and then a fade to black. With lights up, a man comes into the bar. Glowing with a kind of youthful energy, he is beatific. He looks at his hands as if in disbelief. The woman lifts her head from the table and sees him and soon crosses the stage to hold him in a desperate embrace. As the play progresses the fog of ignorance lifts from the audience as it becomes clear that the young man is a specter, the shade of a teenaged lover. The scene is poignant and ever so touching. It is all there in the title.
Matt Kirkwood and Elizabeth Sampson, under the keen direction of Scott Alan Smith, are simply splendid, playing with passion and humor throughout. They are a joy to watch. The production benefits from the excellent unit set design of Desma Murphy, with subtle lighting by Derrick McDaniel. The sound design by David B. Marling, with original music by Kyle Rogan, fits the mood and action of the piece. Costumes by Beth Brand support character and action. Michael O’Connell does props and the stage is managed by Danielle Stephens. Tom Knickerbocker is the producer/creative consultant for The Lighthouse.
I wish I could tell you that The Road Company Theatre’s splendid production of The Lighthouse is to continue for many more weeks, but sadly the show closes tonight, February 3. But the company’s West Coast Premiere production of A Delicate Ship, written by Anna Ziegler, continues at The Road on Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood through March 11.