Multiple sensations come into play in Court Theatre’s production of “Skylight”: smell, as the two main characters prepare a savory spaghetti sauce; light, as day turns into night and back into day; sound, as water cascades within a shower stall. But temperature trumps all on this frigid night in desolate North West London circa 1995. Indoors merges with outdoors in the dingy flat of Kyra Hollis, a schoolteacher in her late 20s or early 30s. We almost expect to see icicles hanging between patches of peeling paint on the ceiling. The soot-stained fireplace serves only as a mocking reminder that no heat will be forthcoming. This chill is at the heart of the drama. When Kyra and her former lover embrace at the end of the first part, it is like rubbing sticks together to light a fire in a gale: sparks may fly, but lasting ignition is unlikely.
Bringing out the sensual side of “Skylight” was a wise move on the part of director William Brown. Without that emphasis, British playwright David Hare’s drama might appear to be more about warring political factions than about the gulf between people. At heart, “Skylight” is a love story, even as the onetime lovers substitute social commentary for pillow talk.
Without flesh-and-blood characters, the political diatribes would go unheard. But in this three-character play where only two characters are on stage at a time, the dialogue gains the intensity of real conversation, however implausible some of it might seem. As talky as Hare’s script is, the actors hold our attention through 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Laura Rook, with her wide-set eyes and lithe body, fully inhabits the role of Kyra, exuding sexuality as she rails against consumerism and champions her underprivileged students. “Skylight” opens as Kyra returns to her frigid flat and is interrupted in her efforts to warm it by someone ringing insistently on the bell. That someone is 18-year-old Edward Sergeant, played by Matt Farabee with just the right mix of vulnerability and teenaged invincibility. Edward has come to tell Kyra that his mother, Alice, died a year ago, two years after Kyra abruptly left the family with whom she had lived for six years. According to Edward, Alice’s death has sent his father, Tom, into a funk. Edward looks up to Kyra as a sort of big-sister figure who might know how to pull Tom out of that funk — a not unlikely possibility since Kyra had been having an affair with Tom, 20 years her senior, while living under the family roof.
Hare’s device of sending in young Edward as a de facto narrator to get the exposition out of the way might be annoying to some, but Farabee is such a winning actor that his presence is welcome. The character also serves as an interesting foil for his father, who leans on the bell shortly after Edward exits.
Given the setup, we’re not surprised when Tom appears, and we’re naturally curious about how the encounter will go. Tom is a wealthy restaurateur — although he reminds Kyra that his origins were more humble than hers — who tried to have it all: wealth, wife and mistress under one roof. Now he is left with only his money and his own company. Philip Earl Johnson puts plenty of energy into his portrayal of Tom but is not altogether convincing in the role — or it may be that Hare’s Tom is not a fully convincing character. Thanks to dialect coach Eva Breneman, all three actors do a bang-up job with their accents.
Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design enhances the production with a finely detailed set that stretches into the back reaches of the stage. (Don’t expect to see a skylight, however. The play takes its name from the beautiful sky-lit room Tom created for his wife to die in.) In place of solid walls, a grid of utility pipes defines the space while leaving it open to the elements, highlighting a backdrop of falling snow in the second part. The effect is at once dazzling and chilling, a little like Hare’s play. Brrr.
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Through February 10, 2013
Tickets: $45 – $65, student and senior discounts available; (773) 753-4472 or www.CourtTheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow