By Jesse Herwitz
Victor Hugo once wrote that the ‘one spectacle grander than the sea is the interior of the soul.’ If there is a place where that spectacle is being staged, where the sea meets the soul, then the characters of Mike Kenny’s ‘Walking the Tightrope’ are its permanent resident actors. Subject to a great and mysterious presence each struggles to play their role. The caretaker of that struggle is, in this case, an invisible circus clown who balances himself somewhere in between the curiosity of youth and the convictions of the elder.
When we are introduced to Granddad (Mark Bramhall), an older man in a woolen brown sweater and weathered cap, he tells us that he is waiting for his granddaughter, Esme, to arrive by train. No sooner than he finishes talking the train pulls in and Esme (Paige Lindsey White) bursts onto the stage with an excitement that is genuinely childlike.
“Where’s Nanna?” she says.
Granddad doesn’t answer. They travel back home to where he lives by the sea.
When they arrive at the house, Esme races through the rooms, the kitchen, the living room, the outside yard. Her excitement quickly wanes, becoming more inquisitive when she realizes that although all of her grandmother’s possessions are there, her grandmother is not.
“Where’s Nanna?” she asks again.
Granddad, again, does not tell Esme. Instead he sends her to bed where, of course, Esme can do anything but sleep. Finally after much deliberation he comes to her.
“Nanna has gone to join the circus.”
Granddad then begins to tell Esme the story of an imaginary circus that Nanna has joined and where she is living her most glorious dreams high above the audience, walking on the tightrope. When Esme is asleep, Granddad leaves her side and sits at the kitchen table, his eyes nearly bursting with tears. He does not know how to tell the child that her Nanna is dead.
“He is suffering because he is in conflict,” says Bramhall.
Esme, on the other hand is simply curious. She, being a very young girl, is eager to know why her Nanna is not there. She does not understand any greater mystery and will accept any answer, except none at all.
“The two arcs of the characters are completely different,” says White. “While one comes from a place of resistance the other comes from reaching.”
Certainly, Granddad is ‘resisting’ her inquisitiveness. It is her ‘reaching’ that will force him to tell her the truth. And this terrifies him. But also in her young age, he sees an innocence that he would like to return to. The story that Granddad leads Esme to believe is a story he would very much like to believe himself.
But what will he say when that moment comes, when the circus returns?
‘Walking the Tightrope’ is a wonderfully touching, well acted, well produced exploration of these universal, distinctly human moments. On one end, Director Debbie Devine has given us the spectacle, characters who directly engage the audience, walking up and down the aisle of the theater. Emotive music and sound, projections on the walls and ceiling. On the other end, she has also given us virtual metaphors. The clown (Tony Duran) who serves as spiritual caretaker to both characters, the one who, as Duran says “protects the family.” The ocean that in many ways represents all the turmoil these characters face. If there is one thing that we are not given, however, it is a resolution.
“Are they going to make it?” says Devine posing the question, without answering it.
Perhaps there is no single answer. People handle situations differently. Granddad must also walk the tightrope, must also find the balance needed in order to continue on with Esme. So that he may continue going down to the ocean on days when the weather is fair, windy, or tumultuous. To pluck seashells from the sand and eat ice cream on the boardwalk. To watch the seaside carnivals go by, to carry umbrellas, to make bread-and-butter pudding, to dance the waltz at midnight. Granddad most see the completion of his story, a story of the circus that we all tuck our fears into, one that inevitably returns and in returning reveals our deepest dreams and fears to those we love most.
Luckily for us, there is the stage where we may watch. And it is a very good one. There is grandeur. There is beauty. There are moments that instantly transcend all others and send shivers up our arms, down our necks. And for such moments, shrouded though they may be with heartache and confusion, there is that great stage in which we may always look to for guidance, like that wondrous sea we may dive into, resurface and dive into again. And like the tide that “rolls in and rolls out” we can learn much from the moments we as a people share.
‘Walking the Tightrope’ is one such moment and a play that should not be missed.