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"Old Times" Engages The Mind ... And Then Questions It

(c) Northern Virginia Magazine

June 22, 2011

By Clara Ritger

From the moment I set foot in the theatre I knew I was uneasy. The set is a modern living room with an eerie similarity to a mental hospital. The walls are white, and the room is decorated with stark simplicity. The furniture is basic: a lonely arm chair, an L-shaped couch, the standard end table.

The actors entered, and the lights went up - but not completely. Two overhead spotlights on Deeley and Kate kept the rest of the room dim. The absence of light on the mysterious, dark woman who stood in the background while Deeley and Kate carried on their conversation about the woman's forthcoming visit was brilliantly creepy. I feared her presence yet wanted to know everything about her.

Steven Culp as Deeley in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of "Old Times" by Harold Pinter, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman
Intrigue, uncertainty and fear are the best words I can choose to describe both my mental state and the events that unfolded on the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh stage. "Old Times" is a typical Harold Pinter play, designed to make the audience feel uncomfortable. But I questioned myself as I chatted amicably with the woman who accompanied me to the performance. I insisted that I remembered my first kiss quite clearly, but perhaps my memory was no different than Deeley's and Anna's; contradictory, unstable, and never the same.

Any production that incites discussion before and after the performance is worth seeing. Pinter has a point to make about the feeble memories we helplessly rely on to create our identity of self, and this cast and production team has gone above and beyond in uncovering the questions we'd rather not ask.

Pinter's script demands a cast that can do as much with verbal dialogue as they can with facial expression and gesture in the moments of silence. Steven Culp, of "West Wing" and "Desperate Housewives" fame, is astonishing as Deeley. His quick succumb to jealousy is evident by the way he anxiously hovers over and around Kate while Anna enchants her. Tracy Lynn Middendorf, Kate, has the perfect Mona Lisa smile; you're never sure what is going on behind it but you also know that the dark abyss of her mind to which Anna and Deeley constantly refer is full of unspoken truths. Holly Twyford, Anna, entered with the perfect amount of exuberance to indicate to the audience that she would ripple the zen of Kate and Deeley's home. Though these are only snapshots of the cast's collective performance, all three were beyond perfect, if there is such an honor.

It was fascinating to watch the actors bring this script to life. The rehearsal work of all three shone on stage. Their movements fed off of each others, and a natural rapport led to perfectly timed sips of drinks and comedic, simultaneous audience cheats. There were moments when the mirror image of Kate and Anna became essential to my understanding of the play, and the posture and poise which each actor established for their character set an interesting visual contrast for a play that can fall short to the script's reliance on language.

Director Michael Kahn has created a masterpiece. There were moments - like when Deeley and Kate poured drinks at opposite ends of the stage while Anna mused in silence - that the staging gave the audience comic relief from the tension. But there were moments - like when Deeley's and Anna's competing interests cast out the one they were competing for - that Kate's spacey wandering about provided another bit of visual comprehension for the audience. The play relies on the subtle motions of the actors, and their body language is often all the audience has to interpret the characters' verbal interactions.

Not to mention that Scott Zielinski's lighting design was superb from start to finish. I was always taught that the best lighting design should go unnoticed. Scratch that; this play is not the same without the specificity of light illuminating, and more importantly keeping in the dark, characters in the room. And Walter Spangler's set design not only maintains an impressively basic functionality, but creates a world of poignant edges and lines, a clear picture for a play of fuzzy memories.

You might go for the big name cast, but you'll leave obsessing over the unanswered questions and the excellent performances by all. The Shakespeare Theatre Company's "Old Times" runs through July 3 in the Lansburgh Theatre. For more information, visit

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