I wish I had music,” says a character identified only as “A” (M.A. Taylor) in Tooth & Nail Theatre’s production of Sarah Kane’s Crave; “all I have is words.”
But that’s not entirely true.
As they sit in four acrylic chairs on the stage, the four characters in Crave weave their bursts of despair, longing and mourning into a hypnotic 45-minute quartet. It may not always be easy to tell what’s happening in Crave—any more than it’s easy to discern the “plot” of a symphony—but it’s nearly impossible not to be moved by its emotional crescendos.
Certain connections do emerge through the ricocheting snatches of Kane’s dialogue. “M” (Anita Booher), a middle-aged woman, longs to have a baby at long last, and to that end pursues the reluctant, younger “B” (Cameron Jones). “A” has been in a relationship with “C” (Tammy Davis), but the woman finds herself too damaged and tormented by her own demons to return his love. And the two women interact in a manner that occasionally seems parent/child, occasionally therapist/patient.
Kane teases with the possibility of additional connections—a reference to marital infidelity that suggests “M” and “A” could actually be husband and wife—but it never feels crucial to Crave to know whether these interpretations are “true.” It’s less a story than it is a core dump of sub-conscious fears and conscious-but-unexpressed feelings, filtered through language. Like most personal interactions, it begins on a superficial level, with “A” relating odd “News of the Weird”-style anecdotes and “B” occasionally posturing about his approach to love and sex. Gradually, it evolves into something more primal, to the point that certain emotions can be expressed only through monosyllables
The four actors play both in isolation and with one another, effectively negotiating the tricky choreography of their often rapid-fire line readings while remaining part of something harmonic and haunting. Each gets his or her individual showcase moment—none more showy or effective than “M”’s litany of what he loves about his beloved—but in keeping with the play’s sensibility, they always feel more like solos than flashy flourishes. Taylor, Jones, Davis and Booher lock eyes with the audience from the moment they take the stage, and never let go of that connection.
Director Roger Benington stages Crave with a keen eye and ear not just for presence, but for absence—and that’s not just artsy-fartsy doublespeak. He uses Stephen Terry’s lighting design creatively, capturing speaking characters sometimes in full light, sometimes completely in the dark. He’s comfortable leaving the audience waiting through uncomfortable silences. Even Rodney Cuellar’s set seems to grow and shrink, as the backdrop eventually reveals a stark forest extending into the distance. It doesn’t strain the musical metaphor to describe Benington as a conductor, finding the ideal entry and exit point for every instrument.
The challenge of Crave is that the instruments are primarily human. Kane is trying to create poetry out of suffering, and uses the cascading rhythms of her text to allow the hard edges to sneak through your defenses. The simple words “no” and “yes” turn into a duet between embrace and rejection; “A”’s metronomic chant of “no” becomes a bass pulse beneath the melody. Even screams of frustration and anguish become arpeggios.
It’s hard not to experience Crave—and make no mistake, this is a play you experience—without considering the context of the author’s life. Kane committed suicide at the age of 28, and knowledge of her too-few troubled years makes the play even more chilling in its quest for answers. But it is to her everlasting credit that even in her personal pain Kane never resorted to easy answers—”M” essentially tells “C” not to do anything as trite as blaming her parents for her misery. Though Kane knew the ache of isolation, she refused to use her art to make that ache a whine. Instead, she made it a song.
CRAVE, Tooth & Nail Theatre, Rose Wagner Center, Studio Theater, 138 W. 300 S., Oct. 23-Nov. 9, 355-ARTS