Playwright Enda Walsh is back with his theatrical adaptation of Max Porter's bestselling book Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, a searing meditation on what happens when a family lose their guiding star
At the start of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Enda Walsh (now showing at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn) there is a joltingly loud snap that sounds like the world is being split in two.
It turns out it is. Seconds later we are introduced to an unnamed Dad (Cillian Murphy) and then to his two young sons, simply called the Boys, in the aftermath of the death of his wife and their mother.
Based on the novella by the same name by Max Porter, Walsh brings his antic theatrical imagination to the proceedings and makes the material, which is every bit as fragmentary as his most famous works, his own.
This fragmentary approach works well because grief, despite what TV therapists tell you, is not a thing that you ever “get closure” from. It's more like a thunderclap that initially deafens and blinds, but then gets more distant with the passing of time.
You can still hear the echoes of the original explosion in the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times, years and even decades after, and they never lose their power to unmoor you or flood your feelings. Walsh knows that and his staging reminds us, over and over.
Since America is one of the most death-denying cultures on earth, to explore bereavement on a New York stage is in itself a fact worth celebrating. It's courageous of Walsh, who writes affectingly of the effect his own father's passing had on him in the program notes, to adapt this book for an audience that has followed his meditations on Irish inheritance (and lack thereof) for two decades.
Onstage Cillian Murphy (who has been an actor in Walsh's plays since Disco Pigs in the 1990s) is the grief-stricken father and also, it soon becomes clear, the embodiment of a demonic spirit that moves into their house when their grief summons him.
This trickster spirit is named Crow, intentionally echoing the famous poem cycle by Ted Hughes and its Hughes' own conception of humanity as the scraping of nails on the blackboard of creation that darkens the walls as the play begins. The message is plain: existence is pain, consciousness is even worse, and all of it is inescapable.
In this play Crow is a sort of Jesus in reverse, he exacerbates pain, he magnifies suffering, and his presence does not sooth, it makes things worse. Porter and Walsh both seem to be saying that Crow is what you become and also what you must push through in order to make sense of what is beyond sense.
Onstage Cillian Murphy pulls a black nightgown over his head when he becomes Crow, the lighting throwing his haunched shadow onto the wall to underline his transformation. That we accept this is all down to Murphy's commitment and focus.
But how successful the transitions are between scenes depend on the shifts in the writing as well as the performance. One minute we are in the realm of the ordinary, the next in the realm of metaphor, and then with increasing ferocity, we are in both. It gets increasingly breakneck.
Murphy's versatility and the demands that the roles make on him could not be clearer. One moment he's the heart shot Dad, next minute he's the cruelty of the uncaring universe as he grapples with the two sides of the aftermath of grief.
But that's the thing about grief that the book, the play, and real life all offer us: a choice. Will the experience of grief teach us compassion, which will, in turn, bring us some peace, or will it harden us, until we carry it like a millstone, exchanging reconciliation for rage?
In Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, Dad tries both routes. Walsh has him living in his bathrobe as the house around him quickly descends into a state of nature. The two boys also lose the run of themselves, eating previously prohibited junk food and squabbling until they're separated. So far so familiar.
What's disconcerting is the introduction of countless jarring tonal shifts and loud explosions as the play progresses, to the point of sensory overload (a pulsing white light sequence stretches on for far too long, so take warning if you're seizure prone).
In recent years Walsh has experimented with form and with breaking the fourth wall and that happens again in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, with Murphy diving offstage and shouting at uncomfortable theatergoers in the first row, as the house lights go up to underline the point that Dad, like the play, has broken his bonds.
But another way of looking at this is to ask if the playwright does not trust his own material to connect with us? Why all the sonic explosions, the video projections, the tonal jumps, the increasingly wild theatrics?
Whilst pressing back against the limitations of the form with a restless imagination that wants to forge new ways of saying what is beyond speech, Walsh's theatrics (the play is also directed by him) get louder and ever more distracting and we begin to lose sight of Dad and the Boys as Crow and his metaphors take over.
But the defining thing about grief is that it is so human scale and intimate. It comes into your life without invitation and it just sits in your kitchen or it climbs into your bed and it does this without fanfare, and in fact, its sheer ordinariness is part of its horror.
Early into the proceedings, I began to worry that all of this productions sound and thunder would distract me from what the play is essentially about, that in gaping at the spectacle I would lose sight of what it actually signifies.
The St. Ann's stage is enormous, necessitating grand gestures (and they certainly come) for most of the play's 90 minutes. It is only in the last 15 minutes that the histrionics onstage resolve themselves into something like a human grief process.
So let's bring this back to what the book and the play are about. When your mother dies it's like a bomb going off in the middle of your life. If you're a child when it happens you will likely grow up in the giant crater that her passing leaves behind, with your hair still smoking from the blast.
If you're a husband you will lose your best friend and your life companion, so it's not just a loss, it's an amputation.
What's left of your family will never be the same and neither will you and there won't be a thing you can do about it. I'm speaking from personal experience here sadly, but it's an experience that is shared by millions.
So the rage and histrionics onstage are real and arise from real experience, but they increasingly get in the way of what the book and the play are about at their core: what it feels like to endure the unendurable.
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers is now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn. For tickets call 718.254.8779.