Magic Theatre artistic director Loretta Greco says in her program note for Terminus that she's been trying to secure the rights for the American premiere of Irish writer Mark O'Rowe's play for five years, basically since she took over the theater's helm. (O'Rowe's Howie the Rookie played the Magic in 2000.) It's easy to see why she had to have it. Terminus is a spellbinding, dizzying show in which it doesn't matter a whit that it's made up of three people standing around telling their stories.
These tag-team monologues have a great deal of humor in them, but the tales they tell are often gruesome and gut-wrenching. Still, by the time they've reached their worst you're so hooked that you'll gladly go with your nameless narrators no matter what dark corners they lead you into. You can guess from the start that these three separate tales will link with each other somehow, but when the connections come they're in ways you couldn't possibly have imagined.
A fortysomething woman working at an abuse hotline receives a call from a voice she recognizes as a former student of hers who's desperate to get an abortion at nine months pregnant. Having failed to help her, she feels she has to go find her. A young woman in her twenties feels the stirrings of attraction for the first time in years, taking her on a dangerous excursion into a construction site. A painfully shy man picks up a plain, attainable-looking woman in a dance club and goes home with her, trying to steer clear of the jeering young thugs hanging around. These humble beginnings quickly take the characters into shocking, sublime, and excruciating journeys that are full of brilliant surprises.
The atmosphere is eerie in the Magic staging by director Jon Tracy, whose company debut with Linda McLean's equally intense Any Given Day was the highlight of the theater's last season. Robert Brill's set is just a large bed of dark gravel that the three characters stand and sit in, Gabe Maxson's lights kept low and tight around the storytellers, and the air thick with stage fog. It's a kind of purgatory, to be sure, but what kind has yet to be discovered. The play begins with a deep, bone-shaking rumbling from sound designer Sara Huddleston, in pitch darkness. The intensity never lets up after that, although from then on it's carried by the performers' voices and intense presence.
O'Rowe's language is mesmerizing, producing great streams of verbiage that are colloquial and poetic at the same time. The lines are densely packed with internal rhymes: "our pursuers seem in effect to reflect their ferocity in velocity as they blast past so f---ing fast I'm cast back by the wind of their wingbeat, almost off my feet..." The Magic production is blessed with three phenomenal actors who handle the spilling streams of the language (and the Irish accents) so deftly that you may not notice for some time that it's basically a play in verse.
Stacy Ross is compellingly fearful but resolute in her teacher-turned-counselor's epic quest to save the girl and her baby. Marissa Keltie's resilient young woman radiates an aching sense of wonder and vulnerability mixed with the savvy of someone who's been hurt a lot in the past. And Carl Lumbly is magnificently chilling and exhilarating at the same time as a man who would do and has done anything conceivable or otherwise to overcome his timidity with women.
It doesn't matter that they're just standing there telling you their stories; you can't take your eyes off them as their increasingly outlandish journeys make you see whatever they tell you, whether you want to or not. On opening night a large portion of the audience started moaning audibly as a defense mechanism against some of the most gruesome imagery that they were only being told about. But even at its worst, it's not gratuitous, and it all pays off in unexpected and magical ways.
It's uncomfortable and exhilarating, pared-down but full to bursting of linguistic, emotional, and imaginative riches, and executed pitch-perfectly by Tracy and the cast. It's not just a welcome reminder of what theater can do; it feels like what theater is for.
Terminus runs through June 16, 2013 at Magic Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit magictheatre.org.
All photos by Jennifer Reiley.