The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops currently at Theater for the New City is the renowned 94-year-old English playwright’s most recent work. The play uplifts the importance of family with themes of unity, love, encouragement, light and hope against the all-encroaching darkness that would turn family members against each other and destroy them. Kops’ lyrical play had a staged reading at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2020. It is a great irony that The Dark Outside presciently foreshadowed the tenor of the times as the pandemic broke out and upended global society and culture right after the reading.
Through the COVID-19 chaos and upheaval, which bred uncertainty, want and fear, oftentimes, family provided the bulwark of steadfastness against psychic and physical infirmities and death. Disastrously, in the United States the divisiveness over how to handle COVID-19 became a political football which, to this day, divides families and ends friendships. Most importantly, Kops’ The Dark Outside reminds us of the moral, sociological and personal imperative of the family unit to sustain its members. Though the inevitable tribulations of life will come, they can be withstood through love’s immutable power.
In this premiere at Theater for the New City, director Jack Serio and the creative team deliver the beauty and sanctity of the play’s themes with a fascinating production that is incredibly timely. Serio highlights the British dramatist’s poetic sensibilities and notes Kops’ homage to archetypal character types through the production’s staging and overall design elements.
To achieve Kops’ ethereality, Serio selects minimalism. The production strips away material clutter and simplifies, using the bareness of space. In the atmosphere created, the superb acting ensemble conjures up the symbolic mulberry tree, the garden behind the house, the dinner, and more. All are in the service of Kops’ revelations about this family’s unity, inspired by the beautiful and loving mother and wife, Helen, portrayed with precision by Katharine Cullison and supported by the wounded, sensitive, poetic father and husband Paul, played by the impeccable Austin Pendleton.
At the outset, Kops introduces us to Paul (Pendleton) the father/husband, a former East London tailor who faces a life crisis after he loses the use of his arm in an accident. To inspire and encourage Paul, wife/mother Helen (Cullison) gathers their children, Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) Ben (Jesse McCormick) and Sophie (Brenna Donahue) to unify the family at the important occasion of celebrating Paul’s birthday.
As the play progresses, we discover that each of the children confronts conflicts and traumas in their own lives. Thus, the chaos that is outside on the streets and in the neighborhoods that Paul often refers to threatens to disturb and destroy each of the family members unless they are able to work through their problems, seeking the comfort of each other to tide them over to face another day.
Kops uses the majestic mulberry tree in the family’s garden to reveal the issues of the characters. For strength and peace, family members confess their angst and deep secrets to the tree whose life force listens and, in its silence, allows the characters to gain an inner solace and calm. Additionally, sisters Sophie and Penny share confidences. Sophie relates a horrific experience that caused her to leave college and spiral downward into emotional devastation and near destruction.
Sophie’s salvation is in coming home where she finds love, acceptance and redemption. Revitalized, Ben and Sophie receive great comfort in the arms and soul strength of Helen, who soothes and reassures both as she helps them overcome their inner hell. Paul’s great appreciation of his amazing wife is his continual blessing. Cullison and Pendleton are authentic and believable in the relationship they build of the loving couple. Thus, it follows that the children, despite their heart-rending troubles, have rightly come home to heal, as they receive encouragement and love from their parents.
Of the joys in this production are the poems and songs that are wide-ranging and eclectic. These, the family sings together or recites individually as expressions of emotion that are difficult to articulate. The songs resonate and recapture the play’s themes. They indicate how the family copes when a member needs help and uplifting. This is especially so in the poignant conclusion when Helen sweetly sings Paul to sleep with soothing grace. The moment is mythic in its power, and it is obvious that love’s sanctity is a balm which never falls short or fails. Thus, by the conclusion, joy returns to the household. The “darkness” has been thwarted with regard to Ben and Sophie who return to the family to complete the circle of love.
The only one who does not join them and leaves for New York City with her husband is Penny. In her move it is intimated that the wholeness of the family may remain incomplete for a season. But we have seen the strength of the archetypal mother who unites her children and husband. Regardless of whether the external darkness is in London or in New York City, Helen will continue to be the binding force that holds the family together with grace.
Jack Serio, the cast and the creative team have delivered the essence of Kops’ work and made it memorable. With the music and sound (Nick T. Moore) scenic design (Walt Spangler’s leaves are a lovely addition) the modulations of the darkness and light symbolism through Keith Parham’s lighting design, the production’s heightened moments are felt acutely. This is one that should be seen because of its cast and the symbolic iteration of one of Kops most heart-felt works.
The production runs at Theater for the New City until November 28th when Bernard Kops turns 95-years old. It is a feat for one of Europe’s best-known and most admired playwrights who the Queen awarded a Civil List pension for his services to literature. It is an award garnered by a very select few, namely Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For tickets and times go to the website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-dark-outside/