The Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, situated in the same block as the Fillmore and AFI, has a lot to offer us. Live entertainment, yes, but more importantly entertainment that is personal, and can really force you to think. Live Garra Theatre (currently in residence at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre) and its Artistic Director, Wanda Whiteside, has taken a bold step by reviving Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic play, No Exit, using it as a springboard for post-show discussions about healing what ails us in these troubled times.
Most people, if they know Sartre at all, think of him as a philosopher; but he discovered that writing plays was in many ways the best way to explore the ideas behind his theory of Existentialism. Although notoriously cynical about religion, Sartre had great faith in humanity and tried to find a way to free us from our worst tendencies—self-absorption especially. The key to his philosophy was to point out how reliant we are on others, both for survival and for gaining a sense of ourselves, who we really are.
Sartre set No Exit in Hell—as a way to show, in part, how we make life a living hell for each other. The denizens of this particular cell – the charismatic Todd Leatherbury as Garcin, the passionate Karen Lawrence as Estelle, and the self-sure Rosita Choy as Ines—have little in common, except for their cowardice. Guiding each of the deceased to their eternal residence is Tillmon Figgs, whose turn as the Valet (decked in an appropriately flaming red overcoat and top hat) is a welcome break from the ordeals to come.
Whiteside has created an appropriately spartan scene, with antique, upholstered settees ranged upstage of a fireplace and mantle – each ‘inmate’ of Sartre’s Hell has their throne, so to speak. Because each of them has some connection to the world they left behind, they take turns gazing into the flames and witnessing the aftermath of their deaths. Old lovers, spouses, co-workers, invisible to us, fill their eyes and bring them even more frustration—not grief, because one of the problems these characters have is their utter inability to feel any grief whatsoever.
For Sartre, the primal sin of his characters is their failure to engage others, to concern themselves with the lives of the people devoted to them. All three, each in their own way, abuse the trust of those who love them; their punishment is to discover what it’s like to have to deal with constant push-back at a time when they need empathy the most. All attempts to use each other as tools for their personal satisfaction fail miserably.
“Hell is other people!” – that’s the famous line from this play, but it’s delivered in frustration by a man (Garcin) who made life hell for his wife for years. So the audience is left pondering, in what way do we make life hell for others? In what way do we begin to rebuild trust, dignity, and empathy, so that the world around us becomes less hellish?
Be sure to stick around for the post-show discussion led each night by the production’s director, Whiteside. And consider immersing yourself in Live Garra’s “Escape Room,” in which you are guided through a series of challenges and plot your own escape.
Running Time: 2 hours, with one intermission.
No Exit, presented by Live Garra Theatre, runs through November 24 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Purchase tickets at the door starting one hour before the performance, or go online.