Linda McLean does fascinating things with damage. Any Given Day, the Bay Area's stunning introduction to the Scottish playwright's work at Magic Theatre in 2012, gave us touching glimpses of tender-hearted people who have been hurt terribly in ways we can only guess at in two emotionally wrenching, interlinked vignettes. Last year's strangers, babies at Shotgun Players proved a haunting portrait of an emotionally fragile woman through fives scenes with different men in her life, in which they never quite talk about what happened to her, but you begin to glean what it was by the elliptical ways they allude to it.
McLean's new play at the Magic, Every Five Minutes, takes this fixation on the traumatized psyche to extremes. Mo (Rod Gnapp) and his wife Sara (Mia Tagano) are hanging out with some old friends, lounging around and having a conversation. But the atmosphere is tense from the beginning, because Mo's hardly there at all. Zoned-out and distracted, he keeps hearing sounds no one else does and drifting off into strange visions. Mo has been recently released from being held prisoner for 13 years, and he has no idea what is real anymore.
Neither does the audience. The 90-minute play is a dizzyingly relentless barrage of layers of reality and unreality, in which it's impossible to track what's real and what isn't. Artistic director Loretta Greco's staging places Mo and friends in a small island in the middle of the stage area; Eric Southern's set is a cozy circle of rugs, chair, ottoman and floor pillows surrounded by a great void, with a large, plain gray wall in the distance. On the wall, Hana S. Kim projects kaleidoscopic patterns, severe close-ups of people's faces, or backgrounds of the various memories and other visions that Mo keeps shifting through.
We see his captors (Jomar Tagatac and Patrick Alparone) as philosophical but cruel circus clowns, as brutal interrogators and as doting caretakers. At times it seems implied that Mo's in a mental institution, or even dead, but other times it seems clear that he's some kind of political prisoner, perhaps a suspected terrorist. But a prisoner of whom? There's talk of an embassy, but also of him being taken from his own home, so we don't know whether he was being held in his own country or abroad, by the government or by someone else. And what we do see is so distorted and self-contradictory that there's almost no point in trying to put the pieces together because they're from completely different puzzles. At first scenes are labeled in projections ("THIS TIME," "A DIFFERENT TIME," "THIS TIME, BUT EARLIER"), but that way of framing things is abandoned as the play goes on and time becomes impossible to track.
Mo also slips into what appear to be fragmentary memories of his childhood, and of his early relationship with Sara. Maggie Mason appears in a variety of guises -- as Mo's berating mother, as a childhood playmate or sibling, as some sort of government functionary, etc. Some of the visions are clearly fantastical, with brightly colored cartoon wigs and fairy-tale dialogue, while others are more plausible as possible memories, but no more reliable. Sometimes the world explodes into loud, horrible noises by sound designer Sara Huddleston and eerie lighting shifts from Southern. Sometimes Mo has conversations with a friendly but frustratingly vague voice from above, and occasionally Shawna Michelle James appears as the gently reassuring presence of a teenage girl with bright blue hair. (The fanciful costumes are by Alex Jaeger.)
And all of this is seemingly going on while Mo and Sara are having a quiet evening with their friends Rachel and Ben, a couple they've known for decades. Carrie Paff and Sean San Jose are sweet and sensitive and pleasantly gabby as Rachel and Ben, though their stories of their day-to-day normalcy seem ridiculously trivial next to what Mo's been through, and the strain of trying to connect with him becomes more and more difficult. Mo is not grounded in this scene, which is ostensibly the real world of the play, and neither is the audience. We keep getting different versions of their evening together, some of which seem to fit together as the before-and-after of the same conversation but some of which are clearly incompatible with each other. Eventually we're left with one version of the scene that seems to invalidate most of what's gone before, but there's no particular reason given to trust this last version, aside from the fact that it happens to be at the end of the play.
Every Five Minutes is also the first play by McLean that we've seen in its raw form as a world premiere, and it's hard to know how much of its madcap messiness is because the story hasn't quite found its shape and how much is just the fragmentation of Mo's psyche. What does Mo's mom have to do with anything? What about the weird bathing conversation? (Oh yeah, there's some nudity as well.) Maybe the fact that it doesn't make sense is the point, showing how far gone Mo is under the surface, but these things feel as if they're significant somehow; it's just hard to guess how.
Still, there's a lot of power in the shards, and the excellent cast wrings resonance out of many moments. Gnapp's Mo is a completely different person in flashback than in the present, wry and mocking, as opposed to the alternately listless and terrified shell of a man that's left. Paff and San Jose make you feel every moment of how hard it is for them to see their friend this way, even as they gently strive for normalcy, and Tagano's long-suffering Sara is clearly the rock that keeps their life together. Whatever is factual and whatever's fantasy taking place onstage and in Mo's head, they make you feel that the personal stakes are very, very real.
Every Five Minutes runs through April 20, 2014 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.
All photos by Jennifer Reiley.