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Suspended
by Maya Arad Yasur
Directed by Linda Kennedy
Upstream Theater
October 7, 2016

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is a company characterized by well-cast, thoughtful small-scale productions with large scale talent. They are currently staging the world premiere production of playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s two-character play, Suspended.  Dealing with a timely, much talked-about topic, it’s anchored by two extremely strong lead performances and a well-realized setting.

The play tells the story of two window washers in an unnamed Western country. They are literally suspended from cables on the side of skyscraper, and as they work, they talk. Isaac (Reginald Pierre) is the boss, and he’s hired a new employee, Benjamin (Philip C. Dixon), without seeming to realize until they start working together that he and Benjamin grew up together in another unnamed country that was wracked by war. Benjamin is a recent refugee, but Isaac has been in his new country for a few years and has established a new life for himself. Over the course of the appromately 75 minute play, we gradually find out more about exactly how these two men know each other, and specifically why Benjamin took this job. The story is well-structured, as small-talk and banter are alternated with more serious discussion, seeds of ideas are brought up only to be revisited later, and the balance of power between these two characters regularly shifts.

I can’t say too much without revealing major plot points, but I will say that this is a deceptively heavy play, and extremely well crafted. What at first appears to be a lighthearted reunion of old friends turns out to be something strikingly different, and many issues are dealt with in terms of the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees, as well as the conditions in the characters’ home country and the conditions that would drive a person to join with oppressive regimes and commit unthinkable acts. It’s a difficult subject to think about. It’s one of those plays that will raise many serious questions among viewers. Ayad Yasur has handled the subject well, for the most part. There are some implausibilities in the script, but the characters are well-drawn and their situations are gut-wrenchingly believable.

The two actors’ performances are the emotional core of this production, with both presenting characters who are initially guarded in different ways. Dixon’s Benjamin is determined and earnest, initially eager to learn his new job although eventually it’s clear that there are more personal reasons for his taking this particular job. Pierre’s Isaac is more secretive, projecting authority but also surprise when he first recognizes Benjamin as his old friend “Benny”, and while he seems happy to catch up at first, he’s clearly hiding something that he doesn’t want to be revealed.  The interplay between these two characters who were once close becomes the major source of drama in this play, and both performers portray this complex relationship well, as new revelations emerge and are dealt with with convincing emotion, suspense, and drama.

The creative team here has worked well to set a convincing scene, with an authentic-looking section of skyscraper represented by scenic designer and artist Cristie Johnson, and appropriate work clothes provided by director and costume designer Linda Kennedy. Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and Dan Strickland’s sound design are particularly impressive, helping to set the mood and also maintain the idea of these two workers’ spending several hours at their job, with the lighting suggesting the progression of the day and the characters’ moving to different stories of the building as they wash their windows, and the sound providing the appropriate auditory representation of the busy city around and below them. Kudos also to props designer Claudia Horn and fight choreographer Erik Kuhn for their important contributions to the drama.

Suspended is an appropriate title for this production in more ways than one. The characters are literally hanging against the side of a building to wash its windows, but the title also speaks to the level of suspense that is developed as the story unfolds, and in some ways to the characters’ lives as they have had to transition to different conditions and circumstances in their lives. It’s an intense, character-driven drama highlighted by two excellent performances. It’s not a very long play, but a whole lot of story and emotion is packed into those 75 minutes. It’s a unique and fascinating production.

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Suspended at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 16, 2016.

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