By Evan McKenna
“Nurse Play” – Created and Written by James Wilkinson; Directed by Joe Juknievich; Stage Management by Tori Skoniecki; Movement Director Kayleigh Kane. Presented by Exiled Theatre at Boston Playwright’s Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston through December 17
“Black Pawn to E four,” says Nurse, engaging in a verbal game of chess with her bed-bound, disabled patient, Joe. “White pawn to E five” Joe defiantly replies. Nurse sits alone at the only table in the small, poorly lit room, sunglasses over her hollowed-out eyes and a stack of Blondie records next to her record player, waiting to make her next move.
On the surface, this may seem like a tense game of chess between two people who have long been frustrated with each other’s shortcomings, but the story soon reveals a much deeper, combative and abusive relationship that these two have been enduring for quite some time. James Wilkinson’s “Nurse Play”, which premiered this past weekend at the Boston Playwrights Theatre, raises larger questions following its bizarre start, setting up the audience for a story that has all the markings of a toxic marriage.
The one-act black comedy takes place in the room of a random boarding house in an unspecified town, immediately establishing the sense of surrealism that this oddly satisfying work is grounded in. While we don’t know how long Nurse and Joe have been holed up in this bleak room, their often explosive irritation with each other makes it seem like it has been eternity.
Life is slowly wasting away, however, for Joe (Cody Sloan), whose highly contagious and deadly disease leaves him disconnected from the outside world. Nurse (Susannah Wilson), who is stuck with him until his end (for reasons that are unknown to us), seems to wield the power between them for the most part. As Joe squirms and aches, begging for injections of pain medicine, shouting out his hallucinations of the outside world, Nurse responds accordingly, injecting him, feeding him his cigarettes. But even though she is helping him, her cynical, micro-aggressive demeanor acts as a form of abuse towards Joe: constantly referring to him as a bag of meat rotting away, torturing him by singing along to her blaring Blondie records. The only thing that brings them together seems to be fear, when the frightening and unexplained knocking on the door comes once again. Both characters remain fixated on the outside world: who is at the door? Is “the light” coming from out there? And can Joe remember what the grass looked like, what the gulls sounded like? Though they both seem to want this outside world, they cannot bring themselves to re-engage with it.
The co-dependency that is beneath Joe and Nurse’s torturing of one another is suddenly challenged when the domineering behavior of Nurse becomes too much for Joe, and he suddenly, somehow, vanishes. Nurse, who up until this point presents herself as an independent woman, finds herself calling Joe’s name, wanting to hear the sound of his voice, but hearing nothing. When she falls, missing her chair and landing on the floor, she begins to realize she is completely alone. Her blindness is not the problem – she believes in “focusing on tangible reality” and belittles the importance of vision. The problem is that without Joe, she must put her emotional independence to the test.
Sloan’s spot-on portrayal of the doomed, paranoid Joe struggling to maintain hope, and Wilson’s ferocity as the damaged Nurse give the story real depth. Both effectively capture the nuances of their characters, and Wilson’s understated yet beautiful vocal riffing of classic Blondie melodies show the joyful side of Nurse, while Sloan’s effortless shifts from victim to oppressor are creepy to watch.
Wilkerson has crafted a strange new work that may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for the esoteric theatre-lover, “Nurse Play” certainly fits the bill. For more info, go to: