By Abigail Trabue
What is it about a relationship that makes communication so damn hard? What drives us to push for our agenda, our ideas, our needs above those of the other we love so much? This feeling of injustice—this unrecognized want to be the most righteous in the room—is a powerful force that can blindly prevent us from giving our partner the same kind of response and respect we seek.
And its this kind of blinding back and forth—the “it’s not me, it’s you!” sort of dysfunction—that is on full display in Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of SKYLIGHT.
Two people with a complicated but predictable past play out the coulda/shoulda/wouldas on a cold and snowy night on London’s Northwest side. Amidst all this rehashing and reminiscing is the enticing smell of homemade marinara being prepared on stage—sautéeing onions and garlic often distracting us from the sometimes long and wordy monologues playwright David Hare has given Tom (John Rensenhouse) and Kira (Katie Karel).
It’s quite a character study. There’s a lot to flesh out here. Tom and Kira flip on a dime, they toss the talking stick back and forth, they are constantly one-upping each other while exposing their raw and unspoken feelings. There’s so much subtext to explore that I imagine Rensenhouse and Karel’s scripts look like a play was written over a play—beat changes drop one after the other, triggers creating numerous heaps and heaps creating innumerable triggers. It’s delicious actor fun.
But does all that fun translate into something that engages the audience? I’m not so sure. The plot isn’t all that surprising, and severe relationship dysfunction is nothing new (I’m looking at you Sam Shepard). While Rensenhouse and Karel turn in uncommonly grounded performances, the text is just so dense I often found myself checking out in order to regroup and check back in.
At the heart is one major problem—I didn’t care enough about Tom and Kira or their wants. When it ended, I felt pretty neutral. I don’t think this is the fault of Rensenhouse and Karel, nor do I think Director Darren Sextro could have done anything more to up the stakes. If anything, we could have used a bit of the “less-is-more” approach. There’s a lot of bag shuffling, random paper grading, and general fidgeting of props. Actions that all seem very natural in real life can often come across as unmotivated stage tricks, things to do when we think we must be doing something. But here’s the thing with SKYLIGHT: there is so much we need to hear, and when you move all over the stage, we spend our time watching and not listening. I would love to watch these two fine actors stand face to face and have it out with the dialogue. I imagine we’d find a connection that might make me sort-of care about Tom and Kira, not to mention poor Edward (Charlie Spillers), who seems like the playwright’s attempt to put nice bookends on the whole thing lightyears after he’d already written the middle.
And while SKYLIGHT feels like a one-act trapped in a full-length play’s body, topped with an unnecessary false ending, there aren’t too many companies that could take on this script and offer the kind of specificity needed to make it work. Kansas City Actors Theatre doesn’t shy away from the dense dialogue, and Rensenhouse and Karel aren’t afraid to go to the dark places. Places, I suspect, that will only flesh out more as the run continues.
Jonathan Robertson turns in another inventive sound design, one that had me listening to The Cranberries as I drove home that night. Props designer Elizabeth Sampley and set designer Brett Engle have harmoniously worked together to create a flat that feels real, that feels like the kind of place Kira would escape to. Smart projections by lighting designer Kylor Greene take the space to a whole new level—though its active realism, with neighbors’ interior lights turning on and off, did add another distracting layer.
Still, I would sit through SKYLIGHT again. I think I almost have to sit through SKYLIGHT again in order to pick up on what I missed. And if fast-paced dialogue, dysfunction, and the delightful smells of Italian cooking appeal to you, then you should sit through SKYLIGHT too.
SKYLIGHT runs through June 10th. For more information visit kcactors.org.