"I’ve felt so singular,
so importantly sorry for myself,
or so exquisitely stilled, attuned,
that I knew there were night truths
unavailable to lovers or the loved
thought I might be close to them,
and have put off sleep because sleep
is social, intrusive…
-Stephen Dunn, “Night Truths”
“Hum” is the first theatre of the years to move me to tears more than once. I don’t normally talk about marketing here – at least in part because I don’t know anything about marketing – but this had one of the smartest, most intriguing marketing campaigns in recent memory. Websites appeared to have gone dark, video clips, tiny excerpts of dialogue, all incredibly well-chosen and really got me excited to see the play without telling me what it was going to be about. So I’m going to try to live up to that and not give much away, there isn’t a lot of plot in this but the revelations are big, or want to be.
First off, Eleni Papaleonardos’ direction is sharp and manages to pull off an incredibly difficult balancing act. With four characters on a small set consisting of three chairs, a chalk board, and one table, where each character has long stretches just shifting in position, in the shadows and not interacting with the others at all, she keeps our attention, frequently keeps us riveted. The play uses the other movement just enough to keep us on the person speaking at the time but we never feel like they’re accenting the speaker, it doesn’t feel obvious.
And the acting is perfect. Tim Browning, who I haven’t seen since he played Macbeth a few years ago in Schiller Park, comes across almost as an homage to the late musician Peter Christopherson but that works beautifully with his character’s growing self-awareness and rambling gravity-weighted monologue about infidelity and a creature that shows up in dreams. Elena Perantoni is hilariously unhinged and keeps peeling away the layers of personality even while getting more laughs than anyone else, as a woman struck by a horrifying image on her way to work who visits the Ohio Caverns and her father.
Jordan Fehr hits the ball out of the park with a role that’s the weakest of the lot, a self-obsessed bookstore clerk who gets a letter from his ex-girlfriend that doesn’t really provoke self-reflection but he thinks it does. Acacia Duncan really shines in this, with her character Calan who gives basic math lectures that veer into discussions of proofs of God and the prisoner’s dilemma and finally the key to the whole piece; hilarious and intense, and among the performances that made those tears spring to my eyes (the other was Tim Browning).
The play has some speeches that are breathtaking, and the overall message of dead people returning to tell us to change our ways and think outside of ourselves is inherently spooky (credit to A. for that line) and a great framework to hang this kind of idea play on. The trouble is, it’s way, way too long. At least a third too long. It uses repetition in this sort of post-Mamet way that turns irritating well before the play thinks it does. Also, being structured as four looks at how people deal – or don’t deal – with the void and including almost no physical action robs the audience of the joy of watching people interact on stage.
With that length, I started looking for logic where I don’t think it’s meant to be, there were a lot of conversations with my faithful companion after that went “Wait, so what about this? Did that make sense?” or “Do you understand what this was doing there?” When that much is thrown at the audience, even when what’s considered important is bolded and underlined, it’s easy to get lost in the swarm of ideas.
It’s a great effort that almost completely overcomes the weaknesses in the material. In five years I want to see a new draft of this play that I'd lay odds is going to kick my ass. Until then, thanks to Available Light for taking a chance on developing work even if it didn’t completely work for me.