Real theater happens anywhere. It happens in alleys and parks, in bars and dorm rooms. It happens behind a curtain made of sheets pulled across the living room and on huge stages. Real theater cannot help itself, the result of imagination and impulse on the part of an actor, a director, a writer. A group of people feels urgently compelled to stage something, and this forces theater out into the open. It happens whether no one comes or the house is sold out.
Bolton Rothwell loves Harold Pinter. The Hellgate drama teacher doesn’t get much opportunity to stage Pinter—the plays are too small, with casts of two or three—so as the school year was ending he seized the opportunity to enlist a few people to mount A Slight Ache at the Crystal Theater. He has cast himself in a pivotal yet mute role and also directs, and the play, which opens June 17 and runs for two more nights after that, is very much a labor of love.
It doesn’t matter. It’s theater. It feels like theater. Harry Gadbow plays Edward and Maribeth Rothwell plays his wife, Flora, a picture-perfect English couple of a certain class who reign over their back garden with comfortable colonialism. As the play begins, Edward and Flora, turned away from each other, share a small garden table and their morning tea. They seem settled and content, cocooned in the familiarity of a longstanding marriage. Where Edward is blustery, Flora is calm. Where Edward is frustrated, she is fulfilled. They match.
Into this connubial paradise swoops a wasp, an outsider of terrifying proportions just by virtue of being an outsider. The couple bickers over the wasp’s fate, traps it in the marmalade, and at last Edward kills it. Gadbow has a glorious moment of naked emotion as he throws himself into killing that invader; he is a small man made momentarily big by a small act. As he mashes the wasp into paste with the back of a spoon, empires fall. As the play progresses, as with Jean Genet’s The Maids, we realize that what we have been offered is a reality with little connection to any outside reality. In fact, the playwright suggests, any reality between two people is its own delusion.
Soon Edward becomes obsessed with a silent figure at the back of his garden, a match-seller, played by Bolton Rothwell, who stands motionless just beyond the rear gate. Edward is outraged that the presence of this man has interrupted his fantasies of domination. I want to look out at my own garden, he tells his wife, and now “that pleasure has been denied me!” Such smug fears and suspicious imperialism emerge as Pinter’s accusation, and the playwright captures these qualities with something akin to vengeance.
Flora natters away with that extraordinary sort of nothingness so beloved in certain social circles. Why, Flora can even talk to a mute man who gives her no response! Maribeth Rothwell comes alive in her soliloquies. The match-seller becomes a source of projection for both characters, and the ensuing fantasies sparked by his presence make up the bulk of the play. About halfway through the one-act, the characters stop interacting with each other and lose themselves in their respective reveries.
It is this quality of loss, of giving over, of total immersion, which makes theater, especially when it is produced on this bare-bones local level, a truly necessary experience. Gadbow, Bolton Rothwell and Maribeth Rothwell all seem to honor this sacred tradition. They wear costumes culled from thrift shops, make do with rudimentary lighting and a pared-down crew. The overwhelming impression made by the stage is one of a flat, black platform. Yet the production feels loved and felt, and though the play is bound up with a great deal of talk, it still emanates from the little stage with warmth. Gadbow, who was deliriously immersed in I Hate Hamlet last year at MCT, has a grand old time again, and although his character is a disconnected, foolish little man, Gadbow imbues him with inexplicable dignity, casting a kind of spell over the house.
Pinter wrote the play in 1958, and it was produced on BBC radio the following year. With its social indictment and subversive politics, it must have caused a stir—a stir that would be only faintly turbulent these days. Like much of Pinter’s work, the play is excessively talky, and Rothwell is challenged with giving his actors action, to conjure them physically when they were meant to be only voices. With a small table, a teapot and a couple of chairs, there just isn’t much to do except get up and walk around. Rothwell has concentrated the physical life of the show on the relationship between husband and wife, with its eerie maternal echoes, and the actors convey the heat of the day and the prison of their little kingdom with admirable force.
Theater such as this gives a place texture, adds to the world that is Missoula. There’s nothing grand here, no big numbers or racy chemistry. But A Slight Ache is the sort of play that in only a few moments of your life can make you see things a bit differently. You can feel the earnest effort, the true conviction and the very call of theater because someone really wanted to do this, and someone has done it, and here you are, privileged to add an evening of theater to your life.