I once knew a world-class paranoiac who happened to make his living in the field of electronic surveillance and phone-tapping countermeasures. He advised me never to say anything on the telephone that I wouldn't want printed on the front page of the New York Times (or, presumably, in a folder on Dick Cheney's desk). Still, any intrusions into private life by the American government pale before the track record of bygone East Germany, where approximately one person in ten was informing to Stasi, the state intelligence apparatus. Into this atmosphere of dread and distrust steps Daniel Pinkerton's sharp new script, performed with uneven but frequently compelling results in this Fortune's Fool world premiere.
The story fictionalizes the true story of anti-government activist Karin (Barbara Kingsley), who after serving seven years in prison wins election to the post-Communist legislature and lobbies successfully to have her surveillance files opened. Karin subsequently learns that her husband Walter (Stephen D'Ambrose) had been regularly informing on her for decades. Stuck in the middle is their teenage daughter Erika (Maggie D'Ambrose).
This staging alternates dramatic scenes with video projections spanning the years, in which Walter tells details of his wife's life to an unseen interlocutor. It turns out that Walter, in contrast to his fiery spouse, is a thoroughgoing coward. And like so many other informers, he spun elaborate justifications for his betrayal. Complicating matters is Walter's sincere love for his family, which counts for little when his wife spurns him and denounces him on national television.
Leah Cooper directs a show that is both ambitious in emotional scope and tightly focused in narrative flow. On opening night Stephen D'Ambrose seemed fuzzy in the early scenes, though in the second act he carried the weight of his character's contradictions. Kingsley is laser-like throughout, brittle but proud in a prison scene and all rage and fury once she discovers Walter's sins of weakness. Karin is the sun around which the planets in Pinkerton's story orbit, and Kingsley's gradual, weary erosion once her fury ebbs lands her character on the legitimate shores of the tragic.
Pinkerton's dialogue verges on the didactic in some of these later passages, yet it is more frequently tuneful and often quite funny. It gets a generally decent staging, too, although if there were secret police waiting to take my report in the theater lobby, I suppose I'd confess to some complaints. The early video sequences, for example, veer wildly in and out of focus, stabilizing as the fictional years pass. In this case, realism might have been thrown to the side for better visual effect--and less chance of migraine. Similarly, Harry Baxter is chillingly aloof as Karin's Stasi bigwig father--yet I admit to pondering why Baxter alone really pursues a German accent. More crucially, in a bedroom scene the night before Karin is to view her file, Stephen D'Ambrose shows no sign of anxiety or trepidation about the crucial day to come. If his character truly thinks himself innocent, Cooper and D'Ambrose didn't find a way to signal that placidity--amid the obvious and imminent doom awaiting everyone else in the house.
I wonder what happens back at the D'Ambrose-Kingsley residence after the curtain falls. The underlying story of the production--in all, a tight and invigorating night of new theater--is that the three-person family onstage is also a family in real life. Has young Maggie lost TV privileges for missing a cue? Did Kinglsey rat out her husband to the stage manager for mislaying a prop? My sympathies ultimately go to Stephen D'Ambrose for the vigorous whacking he takes from Kingsley--my own spouse having no such recourse for achieving restitution. (Editor's note: The letters page is open, Mrs. Skinner.)