Here are words that no reviewer relishes hearing from her peers: “Wow, I’m glad you're reviewing this one!” Yet that is precisely what not just one, but two of my fellow Pulse reviewers said last Saturday night, as the lights came up at Lansing Community College Performing Arts’ production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.”
They were not saying this because the production was poor. In fact, it is an outstanding production of a very challenging play; writing a succinct review that highlights its strengths is the reviewer’s challenge.
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the play is an intimate look at the dynamics of four people who wile away the dismal days in the isolation of what was once a grand estate. These were people of privilege, whose wealth gave them the means to survive. It is a privilege they have grown to regret.
Hamm (Michael Hays) is the king of the castle, propped up on a throne-like wheeled chair. His parents, Nagg (Jonas Greenberg) and Nell (Mary Wardell), who lost their legs years ago in a tandem biking accident, inhabit side-by-side steel drums. They pop up to share affection with each other, to reminisce about the past, and to listen patiently as their blustery son insults them.
They all rely upon manservant Clov (Alec Nagy), whose handicap is that he is unable to sit. He limps about, taking care of his lords and lady and their home. We soon learn that each day here passes much like the last.
Hamm is a demanding taskmaster, pushing Clov to the limits of his patience. He also uses Clov to abuse his parents, offering rewards that he can’t provide in exchange for their attention. In one scene he promises Nagg a sugar plum if Nagg will listen to part of a story he has been writing. After Nagg patiently listens and then asks for his treat, Hamm laughs cruelly and admonishes him for believing there could be sugar plums left in the world.
The characters take turns cycling through periods of hope and despair. At one moment they revel in the tiniest of life’s pleasures, from a back-scratch to a ride around the room. However, when the realization hits that these moments are fleeting, they descend back into depression. Their only hope is that it will all end soon, yet none have the fortitude to bring things to a conclusion.
The script takes place in real time, and is performed in one act of about 90 minutes. The time at once passes quickly and yet agonizingly slowly. This is not a criticism; the play should be experienced thusly. The intriguing script is engaging yet emotionally draining. The audience feels but a small measure of the agony of this life.
In the hands of a lesser cast and director, the audience of this play could suffer as much ennui and agony as its characters do. However, director Andy Callis, never one to shy away from a challenging script, chose his cast well. Greenberg and Wardell make a cute couple. With limited exposure — after all, he lives in an oil drum and is seen only from the shoulders up — Greenberg gives a distinctive and consistent physicality to the doddering old man. His wandering eyes and fidgety hands are mesmerizing.
Hays has the physical and emotional presence to make Hamm the force that he is, and yet delivers the full impact of the man’s vulnerability in the final scene. Nagy simmers as the much put-upon Clov who would love to leave this dysfunctional family unit, but is waiting for some final straw. Hays and Nagy are patient and do not rush through the necessary pregnant pauses in their silent battle of wills. Nagy also bears the brunt of almost all physical movement in the work, and wears his exhaustion well.
As Hamm says, “This is slow work.” It is, indeed. Yet those who endure this grim work will be rewarded with the occasional laugh, and much fodder for conversation and debate for days after.