Sacred + Profane is the title of Green Candle Theatre Company’s current show, a pair of one-acts by local playwrights Maura Campbell and Stephen Goldberg. Which is which? Campbell’s considerable accomplishments may not quite have rendered her “sacred,” but she is highly regarded for skillful craftwork both as a writer and a director. By contrast, Goldberg’s reputation for populating his tales of dysfunction and degradation with hard-luck, foul-mouthed characters might encourage us to identify him with the “profane.” Yet he, like Campbell, is as close as one can come to “sacred” in the local theater community: a respected dramatist who has long enjoyed the loyal support of some of the area’s most talented players.
As we watch the two original plays unfold, it becomes clear that the show’s Sacred + Profane supertitle is more of a critical lens through which to experience and reflect on them than a way to categorize them. Some of their characters find spiritual common ground in sacred moments; others exhibit a distinctly earthly self-interest. Invoking the “sacred and profane” dichotomy also invites comparisons and contrasts between these two plays from two playwrights whose bodies of work could not be more different.
Campbell’s “Cleaning Day” opens the evening as delicately as the glow of a lamp in an old Vermont farmhouse. The action begins as gray-haired Iona, played by Tracey Girdich, receives a young woman visitor, Jenny, played by Genevra MacPhail. Iona’s insistent hospitality, and Jenny’s brusque refusal to be treated as a guest, set the tone for a curious relationship that develops over the course of the story. Jenny could be a lodger come to look at a room for rent. Iona could be a lonely widow yearning for human contact. In fact, we soon learn that Jenny has come to clean the room where Iona’s husband shot himself a day or so earlier.
“Cleaning Day” draws its central dramatic tension from the strong implication that something is missing from Iona’s story of the suicide. Jenny picks up on inconsistencies but, at first, chooses to ignore them. As the story unfolds, however, her indifference becomes a more active avoidance of getting into it with Iona, for reasons that create a satisfying surprise in the play’s resolution.
Girdich and MacPhail execute the work skillfully, conjuring believable chemistry between two characters with more in common than first meets the eye. The play’s dramatic situation suggests they should remain distant, which makes Iona’s welcoming overtures a source of friction. Girdich turns in a restrained performance, pulling up short of the stereotype of batty, attention-starved old woman to reveal, instead, intriguing glimpses of something weighing heavily on her mind and heart. MacPhail plays the standoffish cleaner with a balance of gloom and annoyance. Hers is a more reticent character, and MacPhail delivers her downbeat emotional notes with confidence and nuance.
Notwithstanding its grisly premise, “Cleaning Day” is a relatively quiet tale from beginning to end — too quiet in spots. Here and there, the mystery of the play dissipates as Iona and Jenny struggle to establish a bond. Campbell may have missed an opportunity or two, either in her script or her direction, to intensify the felt presence of the deceased and prevent dust from settling on her one-room drama.
Still, “Cleaning Day” gathers speed toward its climax and hits its most confident strides at the end. The play resolves itself with emotional notes perfectly in tune with what has come before. Like the doily-like Kathy Wonson Eddy piano score that adorns the piece, the play’s closing moments resonate like single keys pressed gently and allowed to fade to silence.
Shove that metaphorical piano down a flight of stairs, and the sound it makes when it hits the landing would be fitting accompaniment for Goldberg’s “Don and Tom.” The play opens with Tom, played with wide-eyed posttraumatic stress by Alex Dostie, running through a brief list of the abuses he suffered at the hands of his parents. His orange prison jumpsuit implies where all this led him. Ben Ash and Girdich play Tom’s wretched parents in reenactments of episodes from his youth. They’re a loathsome pair, depicted in broad strokes of despicability.
Early scenes alternate Tom’s story with glimpses of Don, played by Aaron Masi, also in an orange jumpsuit, sitting chained on a pedestal at upstage right. He stands and walks downstage to make a final statement, an innocence plea, before an invisible judge. When we see him a few scenes later, his chains are off, and he and Tom are cell mates.
What ensue are scenes in which Don and Tom, two individuals damaged beyond any hope of rehabilitation, stew in their criminal insanity. Or maybe roil is a better word, as Dostie and Masi bring kinetic energy to their roles. Masi, who cuts a tall, muscular figure, uses his physical size to menacing effect, even when he’s being nice to Tom. Dostie’s Tom tends to scurry away, wanting nothing to do with his new roomie, whom he seems to view as just another person likely to do him harm.
Dostie’s and Masi’s performances are the notable strengths in this play. They’re skilled physical actors who energize Goldberg’s solid direction. They’re at a disadvantage, though — as is the audience — in having been given lines that push a darkly comic absurdity to the fringes of nonsense. Dostie’s Tom literally speaks nonsense from time to time — for instance, when he’s evaluated by a doctor played by Peter Keegan.
By his own admission, Goldberg is less interested in whether audiences share his sense of his plays’ meaning than in encouraging them to find meanings of their own. What “Don and Tom” is saying defies easy description — as is the case with many plays in the author’s substantial body of work.
Goldberg’s signature approach to plot — loose, sometimes nonlinear events featuring discursive, combative dialogue — can give his plays a rough, almost improvisational feel. One is often reminded that the author is also an accomplished jazz trumpet player. “Don and Tom” is classic Goldberg — open to interpretation and marked by the dramatic equivalents of blaring trumpet notes, discordant riffs and the sound that spit makes when jettisoned through a brass instrument’s water key.
In this sense, “Don and Tom” is the stronger candidate for the “profane” label, concerning, as it does, individuals who never transcend their self-interest. It has a slightly alienating effect on its audience, while Campbell’s “Cleaning Day” is more accessible. Campbell’s characters succeed, where Goldberg’s fail, in finding a kind of communion.
Goldberg & Campbell, "Sacred + Profane", one-act plays written and directed by Maura Campbell and Stephen Goldberg, produced by Green Candle Theatre Company. October 9 to 12, 8 p.m. at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts, Burlington. $10. offcentervt.com
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Burden of Proof"