There is assuredly no pain greater than losing a child. Israeli novelist and intellectual David Grossman lost his youngest son, Uri, in the final hours of the Second Lebanon War. His grief was primal, elemental and profoundly personal. But as an act of healing, Grossman sought to capture the universality of the grieving process when losing a child in his 2014 poem/novella/drama Falling Out of Time.
This month, his work of loss and reconciliation makes its world premiere on the Theater J stage in a sometimes vivid, sometimes sphinx-like, adaptation of the book by locally based director Derek Goldman, known for his work at Theater J on Our Class and In Darfur. The 90-minute meditative drama, which runs through April 17 in the Goldman Theater of the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center, is in parts thought-provoking, wrenching and captivating.
Grossman crafted a modern myth with an Everyman at its helm and a supporting cast serving in the metaphorical process of coming to terms with the death of a beloved. We watch the suffering and torment of these archetypal characters as they take steps back into the world of the living and accept life even amid incomprehensible death and tremendous loss.
For this production, Goldman pushes the boundaries of the playing space, placing characters in the audience and 19 audience members in on-stage seats — suggesting that we are all a party to the joys and sorrows of living and dying, grieving, forgetting and remembering. Misha Kachman and Ivania Stack, set and costume designers, respectively, mix periods and styles, alluding to the timelessness of the piece — and the healing process. There’s an old-fashioned cobbler’s bench and a contemporary suburban streetlight, a bowler hat and long military swing coat and ubiquitous modern-day plaid shirts and khaki slacks, that all suggest literally being out of time.
Eric Shimelonis’s original music and sound score also places the action in a mysterious and otherworldly environment, with tinkling bells, strumming bass notes and ambient noises of hammering, footsteps and water in a washtub altering the senses.
A first glimpse of the Chronicler (Michael Russotto) occurs as he stands in thoughtful repose in the audience, notebook and pen in hand. As a bit of a Grossman alter ego, a writer and recorder, he’s the town note-taker, observing, questioning, pressing for details from every townsperson he meets. The Centaur, perhaps another side of Grossman, is a writer silenced, his notebook blank, his story choked inside as he cynically accuses the Chronicler about his penchant for peering into other people’s lives, mining their pain, for titillation as much as for reportage.
Bedraggled in ragged clothes and unkempt hair, the Centaur is trapped, his lower body invisible underground. He remains a sentry of sorts, representing stasis, an inability to move forward as the rest of these characters navigate the process of coming to terms with and breaking out of grief.
The narrative opens with an Everyman, known simply as Man in this telling (Joseph Wycoff), and his wife, Woman (Erika Rose), conversing elliptically at dinner. He’s leaving, going “there,” cryptically suggesting the place where their son was felled. The dialogue between the two opens up and enlivens Grossman’s prose from his written fable, which can be chilly and ascetic. Particularly with Rose’s insistent approach as the Wife who seems to see the danger in her husband’s quest, this early dialogue sets the action in motion. His first few steps lead into a labyrinthine walk around the theater as a means of healing himself and eventually others to join him. The journey of one becomes that of many.
Goldman’s staging does its best, although the Theater J space is less than ideal for this production, which wants more interaction with the audience, more natural elements — maybe dirt or sand on the bare wood floor? — and more elemental yearning. Trouble is that when Man embarks on his quest to the “there” — the place, it is noted, where no one ever returns — we see little that is transformative from Wycoff’s characterization.
The performers follow the Man on his walk up, across and down the theater aisles, yet the meditative, healing quality of the walking gets lost in the space; it’s too vast. As the characters unite, a community of grievers emerges from the individual pain of fresh loss.
Grossman’s words move these grieving parents from denial to, ultimately, acceptance. An apotheosis or visionary section is most problematic, as an imagined wall featuring the changing faces of children is described while the performers strip away the accoutrements of daily living. Myth and reality try mightily to mingle and merge in Goldman’s production — earth opening, a light-infused blaze, a thunderclap are described literarily rather than created through stagecraft.
Grossman set his work in a no-person’s land purposely. He has been castigated in Israel for his left-leaning politics, so the choice to universalize the setting is a telling one. In his mythologizing, he reaches out to others — the nameless, carrying neither religion nor country as an identity, only their titles.
As the circle of walkers widens with each new character arrives at a personal level of acceptance, a community of mourners is created. And while the group didn’t number the classic 10 required for a recitation of the Jewish mourner’s prayer, grieving in a community is the traditional Jewish way.
Grossman has created a community to mourn and to overcome the death of a loved one. Falling Out of Time theatricalizes a deeply personal account in ways that are striking and possibly disquieting. It’s a challenging and not always easy experience for viewers who may still be coming to terms with the freshness of their own losses.
Falling Out of Time, by David Grossman, through April 17, Theater J, Washington, DC-JCC, 1529 16th Street, NW, Washington. For ticket information, call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.