At the beginning of the show, we see a very pregnant Alice (Hannah Kenah, also the playwright) slowly descend the stairs to sit in a chair. She's so pregnant, she must not have seen her feet in a few months. But "glowing"? Not so much.
The baby's father, Heath (Derek Kolluri), seems much more engaged with the idea of a baby. He even seems to be looking forward to the whole concept of parenting. Alice, on the other hand, isn't thrilled. She's not angry, per se, but she gives the impression that she's intentionally holding the baby in. She doesn't like to see the neighbors, she won't work or read or play the piano, she doesn't do anything but sit in the only chair in the room by herself. It's as if Alice is refusing to allow any movement or change in the world around her. And that goes about as well as it ever does in art or literature or life or for someone who is past her due date.
This first production from Salvage Vanguard Theater after losing its Manor Road space is a mix of abrupt imagery and inverted symbolism. Under the direction of SVT Artistic Director Jenny Larson, actors proceed from moment to moment deliberately, with silences given significant weight. Visual elements are stacked to create a sense of teetering on the edge of change: gusts of autumn leaves blow into the house when characters open the front door; Alice's pregnant belly grows to ridiculous proportions; family pictures are positioned just so on one wall of the home which eventually cracks (set design by Stephanie Busing). And despite all the elements of home and family, family bonds are in short supply.
As pregnant Alice continues to sit (with difficulty, of course), she sees the form of her daughter, who has taken the name Fireclay (Renna Larson). What might be an opportunity for inspiration to actually go and have the baby and embrace life instead becomes a disturbing battle of wills between a mother and daughter. Eventually, even Alice can't prevent time from moving forward, and something – not sure what, but something – goes disastrously wrong. A doctor (Rupert Reyes) visits, but he offers Heath very little that helps him understand what has happened.
The play defies easy interpretation, and to that end, it won't be everyone's cup of tea. But neither should With Great Difficulty be dismissed out of hand as too abstract or confusing. While the show does not embrace literal concepts of pregnancy and motherhood and family and home, it puts those ideas to service as it searches for something more unsettling about what happens when a person is trapped in a situation with no apparent good end.
The four actors are well cast in their parts, and the show's design supports what the company is trying to achieve. Given the intentionally slow pacing and the lack of warmth and joy among most of the characters (Heath does his best), this is not an easy or comforting play to see. It is a thoughtful production, though, and it feeds the intellect for those who can embrace a challenge.
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