Review: ‘The Pavilion’ at The Hub Theatre

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Aching and raw, sweet and lamenting, Hub Theatre’s production of The Pavilion is a master class of three DC-area actors in command of playwright Craig Wright’s lyrical, melodic language about love, loss, regret, and mercy. There are even vital shout-outs about the formation of the universe. Yup, the universe.

Matt Bassett, Nora Achrati, and Helen R. Murray in The Pavilion. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Matt Bassett, Nora Achrati, and Helen R. Murray in The Pavilion. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Under the capable, softly sculpting hands of director Kelsey Mesa, The Pavilion is one exceedingly appealing, rather seductive, production exploring the human spirit and its resilience. There is also plenty of lively, brash humor, and frank shredding of one self-absorbed character. (Note: The Pavilion is a special remount of the first Hub production for the Hub’s current tenth season).

But most of all, The Pavilion is a success because of the artistic talents of its three-actor ensemble: Nora Achrati, Matt Bassett, and Helen R. Murray. The three do something well beyond using their voices to speak dialogue. They have a profound ability to punctuate words with assertive physical and facial expressions whether speaking a line, listening to a line or eavesdropping as another takes center stage.

So, what’s The Pavilion all about? First off, playwright Wright (whose credits include the plays Melissa Arctic and Recent Tragic Events, along with TV’s Six Feet Under) clearly knows his way around the territory of human feelings, using magical realism as his theatrical tool.

The Pavilion has the simplest of starting points; the 20th reunion of the class of 1998 from a small-town Minnesota high school. It is a time of false fronts to present success and happy marriages. Well, only until alcohol-fueled truth-telling begins, along with the appearance of crumbling body language. The reunion venue is located in a famous local haunt of the now 38-year-old alumni, called the Pavilion. As the alumni return to the Pavilion, the physical structure is on its way to the wrecking ball in the name of fresh development. A chapel of good memories for the alumni is about to disappear from their lives.

Wright focuses attention on a needy Peter, played by Matt Bassett with the conviction of a self-centered man with a yearning for the past and an insistent hope for a brighter future. For most of the drama, he is simply unable to understand his great betrayal and failings to his high school love. Peter is a successful psychologist, working in the big city and returning to his hometown. Outwardly a success, he has made a mess of his inner life. Returning to town, he has dreams of winning back his old sweetheart Kari, played by Helen R. Murray. Kari is the girl Peter left behind without a decent reason and without the decency to even explain it to her before he left.

Helen R. Murray as Kari in The Pavilion. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Helen R. Murray as Kari in The Pavilion. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

As Kari, Murray completely empties herself on stage with piercing looks and silences that go along with potent words of pain, hurt and wisdom such as her suffering through twenty years of “pain, beyond hurt, and it is vast and it’s endless.” Murray has an assured ability to sometimes slump, sometimes appear in a downwardly spiraling posture that boldly underlines her character’s sorrows. When she speaks a line to the needy, lonely Peter, she tells him “you ruined my life” with utter vitality.

Then there is the energy of Nora Achrati, who plays a host of characters including an all-important Narrator. As the Narrator, Achrati sets the production in motion with an opening monologue about the beginnings of the universe to the present-day 20th reunion. She is an Old Testament prophet holding forth to a rapt audience, or perhaps a modern scientist with pizzazz, not algorithms. Achrati also plays multiple reunion characters, both male and female, winners and losers with clearly separate backstories. She is an expert at quickly changing her voice, her physical mannerisms being so that her ten different characters are discernable whenever they appear (though I must admit I did not get each of their names). As the various characters, Achrati more than just fills up the stage – she gives Murray and Bassett plenty of “others” to interact with, bringing out more details about them. But it is as the all-powerful Narrator that Achrati has the greatest impact on the play’s proceeding forward.

The set design (Mesa and Murray) is a minimal one, with hanging strands of white lights and a number of round paper lanterns of various sizes (representing planets) and some twinkling star features, along with some moveable railings and one sitting area. It is all that is needed. Jen Gillette’s costumes give off a modesty for each of the characters that makes them likable; they are not show-offs.

I do want to highlight Evan Cook’s sound design. His selections of music and songs lift and illuminate characters and scenes. The selections also underpin feelings and moods with just a few seconds of a particular music selection especially when there is literal verbal silence on stage. Cook also does a bang-up job with his pre-show selections. A sample of his overall music selections appears in an endnote below.

So, can Peter and Kari find a way to put things right after so many years apart? Will there be forgiveness for past wrongs? Can a life together begin anew? Hub audiences get to witness answers to these and more including this particular one I found most engrossing: Do we become what we become by remembering or forgetting?

Let me leave you with these lyrics as hints as to what to expect from The Pavilion as written by Wright and sung by Peter as Kari listens:

“So come my angel, Come my prize
We’ll go down in the ruined world
Don’t veil your face, don’t hide your eyes
See the oil in the water swirl”

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

The Pavilion plays through April 15, 2018, at The Hub Theatre performing in The New School – 9431 Silver King Court, in Fairfax, VA. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online.

Note: Selective music/song selection list:

Preshow-
“You Were Meant For Me” – Jewel
“Stay” – Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories
“Keep Coming Back” – Richard Marx
“Building a Mystery” – Sarah McLachlan
“As I Lay Me Down To Sleep” – Sophie B Hawkins

For reunion section of The Pavilion-
“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” – Bill Evans & Chet Baker
“You and the Night and the Music” – Bill Evans & Chet Baker
“What Kind of Fool Am I” – Bill Evans

For the 1990’s Period of The Pavilion –
“Zombie” – The Cranberries
“Till You Do Me Right” – After 7
“Winds of Change” – Scorpions
“Breathe Again” – Toni Braxton
“Who Will Save Your Soul” – Jewel