Playwright Melissa James Gibson does not seem too interested in Homer’s Cyclops, Lotus-Eaters or the Trojan horse. Instead, she finds that more trying than any of the divine challenges Odysseus overcomes are the emotional battles faced by those who have never climbed aboard his ship. In the world premiere of “Current Nobody” at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Gibson invites her audience to take a journey through a family’s struggle, effortlessly weaving ambition, love and sacrifice together while reminding audiences that the truth lies not in the journey, but in the lessons learned at home.
Though Gibson’s theatrical adaptation differs from Homer’s classic in several ways, Gibson’s most significant departure comes in reversing the roles of Odysseus and Penelope – who become Od and Pen. Pen (Christina Kirk) clearly wears the khaki carpenter pants in the family, as a photojournalist who conquers her fears of foreign dangers but seems averse to facing the tedium that awaits her in Ithaca. Husband Od (Jesse Lenat) restricts his status as a stay-at-home dad to his bedroom, where he clings to the hope of his wife’s return by marking the weeks, months, and eventually years that she’s been gone on the whiteboard behind his bed. Without the conscious presence of either parent, the couple’s precocious daughter Tel (Casie Platt) relies on the doorman Bill (Michael Willis) for motivation to embark on her own journey to find the other parent she affectionately refers to as ‘nobody.’
Daniel Aukin’s production unabashedly influences his audience’s emotions, with Lenat and Platt stepping right into viewers’ hearts barely beyond their initial introduction. The father-daughter interactions are captured not only on stage, but also through Gibson’s creative use of video. Though this may initially sound a bit hokey, the modern context of the play lends itself to such a medium. By replacing Penelope’s conventional suitors with “indie docu-filmmakers,” Joe, Jo and Suzie (Deb Gottesman, Kathryn Falcone, and Jessica Dunton respectively), Gibson makes her audience privy to private moments using a series of hidden cameras, inducing the feel of a reality TV show.
Gibson combines literary talent with the expertise of projection designer, Jake Pinholster, to produce clips of white noise that highlight Pen’s messages to her husband- emphasizing that to her, this is an important journey and reminding him that she’ll be home soon enough. The indie docu-filmmakers prove to be immeasurably useful by zooming into Tel’s face during a particularly emotional scene. While those not sitting in the front row may not be able to experience Platt’s heart-wrenching facial expressions, the filmmakers invite the audience to take notice of her panicked full body quivers, tear-filled eyes, and desperately sharp breaths.
Ironically enough, though Gibson’s work seamlessly integrates a markedly modern medium in this production, the show truly shines because of its more traditional aspects. Gibson’s use of language in “Nobody” proves that she’s clearly somebody in contemporary theater. Like a modern-day Shakespeare, she dissects contemporary English, manipulating connotations and emphasizing syllables to reinvent Homer’s classic. Od’s use of repetition emphasizes his growing despair. As he openly proclaims to a verbal journal, it’s the little things about his wife that Od misses most. By simply undressing and redressing each other every evening and morning, the couple “formalized the travel to and from the world.” This simple revelation addresses the gap Lenat must bridge between the stage and the audience, by directing his viewers’ attention not only to this practice, but to those rituals they’ve created with their own loved ones. Such a script indicates that Gibson clearly considers each stroke of her pen very carefully, making sure that each syllable falls in line with connotation she wishes to invoke.
By weaving language in such a dramatic way, however, Gibson creates a dependence on an almost flawless script. After creating a deep-seated connection between her actors and audience, however, Gibson backs off. During the final scenes of the play, the production relies upon the abilities of Kirk and Platt to drive the show home. Both deliver in a muted, but highly effective manner. The interaction of the mother-daughter duo unapologetically evokes extremely personal emotions from an audience that falls silent in the presence of such an inquisition. Though at the beginning of the play, Pen declares that career is “very important work [which] is carnivorous,” and it is not until her final interaction with her daughter that she realizes to what extent her absence has chewed apart her family.
“Nobody” tells a tale of love and absence like Gibson does in this production. Inspired language, creative new production materials, and evocative performances make this show among the best of the season. For anyone that has a heart and a family- it’s a definite must see.
“Current Nobody” is playing at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre from now until Nov.25. Tickets can be purchased online at
www.woollymammoth.net or at the box office.