Not content to be one of the Triangle's more formidable actors in addition to his IBM career job, Gregor McElvogue founded a theater cooperative. Common Wealth Endeavors grew from the idea that the true common wealth generated by the former British Empire can be measured in language, the English now in use around the globe by people in very different cultures. McElvogue is a British national, born in Singapore and trained at London's Central School of Speech and Drama. He formed Common Wealth Endeavors to bring plays—stories—from the countries of the British Commonwealth to the stages of North Carolina's Triangle.
Many Moons, playing at Durham's Common Ground Theatre (no relation), is Common Wealth's second full production, and it's a stunner. The first work by young British playwright Alice Birch, it was originally produced in 2011; this production is its U.S. premiere. McElvogue directs the beautifully crafted script with great delicacy and a finely calibrated sense of timing. We are coaxed into such sympathy with the four characters that, even when their grievous shortcomings are revealed, we are inclined to accept that such shortcomings are part of the spectrum of human behavior. We cannot merely revile the characters as one-dimensional monsters—we know them as complex people, full of longing for love.
Some very tough stuff comes out in this unbroken 110-minute play, and anyone who has lost a child to pedophilia or death will want to be prepared, just as a rape survivor must be mentally fortified for portrayals of rape. Birch does not condone what her characters do; she gives their actions context that allows us to feel pity as well as righteous rage. And if we can take it, that makes us better humans.
The action is described in turn by the very pregnant 30-something Meg (J Evarts); the 24-year-old, always smiling, semi-ingénue Juniper (Mary Guthrie); the 30-ish Ollie (G. Scott Heath), brilliant but not socially adept; and the remorseful 60-something Robert (David Sweeney). It takes place on a single hot day, July 18, in Stoke Newington, a village in the vast London metropolis.
All of them are present on Cory Livengood's simple, effective set; each is put in motion by changes in Hillary Rosen's active lighting. They shift places as they tell their converging stories, and the language is such that we see their homes and yards and streets and cafes overlaid on the set's plain geometries. The four are neighbors; they've seen one another and know of one another, though they're acquainted only in the most minimal way. But July 18 is the day of the local fête, or neighborhood fair, and on that day their paths cross with devastating effect. The playwright is not ambiguous, but she leaves it to us to infer the results of the stories' culminating actions.
The level of self-control achieved by the playwright and director is matched by the actors, all of whom are fully in character and leave indelible impressions on the viewer. Evarts' portrayal of Meg is the best work I've seen from her. Sweeney excelled at showing his character's simultaneous strength and weakness. Guthrie kept Juniper's frothy belief in the good in everyone right up to the top of the glass—until the very moment of its complete deflation. And Heath, as the sympathetic young Ollie whose crime you must despise, breaks your heart while twisting your gut.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The bard, the gods and a modern tragedy."