Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy, Progress Energy Center
Through August 3
With the dollar and the stock market plummeting, no one's financial situation is that secure, and the middle class is continuing to erode. All of which makes it a particularly appropriate moment to revisit
Skylight, David Hare's 1995 drama that attempts to situate class conflict in a volatile interpersonal relationship where trust has already been betrayed. We last saw Skylight 10 years ago at Playmakers Rep. Unfortunately, this Hot Summer Nights production doesn't entirely avoid the soapier tendencies of the script.
Hare's work explores the gender and class tectonics at work when Tom, a wealthy restaurateur, seeks out a relatively impoverished Kyra, an estranged employee—and mistress—from years before, on a cold night at her unheated East London flat. Kyra, we learn, abruptly left Tom's world of privilege (and a manager's high salary in the bargain), as she'd said she would, after he accidentally-on purpose let his wife find out about their affair.
What brings Tom around this evening? His wife has died of cancer, he's kicked his teenaged son, Edward, out of the house, and now he's learning that the gated community in which he lives is keeping out a few people who conceivably could meet a few needs he has.
No, he didn't phone ahead. But at least Kyra sees this part of the deal coming, courtesy of a well-timed visit from Edward earlier that day, during which he revealed that his father has sequestered himself, rarely leaving the house, sending out for everything: "It's like Citizen Kane," he concludes, "only with Yellow Pages." One scene later, Tom is there, having decided, unilaterally, that he should see her again.
Last parts of the puzzle: Since leaving Tom's world of high-priced cuisine, Kyra's been doggedly teaching lower-class inner-city children who have already demonstrated the ability to break and enter another teacher's house—and then roast her pet cat in the oven. No fool, Kyra admits to Edward that she misses the creature comforts she once had. What's not as clear is the degree to which she misses the creature that once provided them.
What so easily could be twisted into a comedy about boorish ex-lovers becomes in Hare's script a metaphorical confrontation between the different classes of British society (and American society by extension). Ironically and unexpectedly, the clash doesn't take place when some proverbially downtrodden worker revolts against inequality. Instead, it occurs when the man on top, who's already renegotiated his own social contract well beyond the breaking point, decides he needs even more and ventures out to charm, cajole, guilt-trip and demand it.
Wisely, the playwright hasn't pitted demon against angel here. Kyra's own privileged background is alluded to before she has to address the deliberately austere choices that have made her life after Tom a "never-ending act of contrition." Even more potentially damning is Tom's twin assertions: Her life of chosen martyrdom conveniently keeps her from ever opening up and giving to anyone, and it's a sham because "it's built on a negative; it's built on escape."
Given his rapacity in the role of Tom, we'll pardon Bruce Somerville's occasionally wobbly lines on opening night as a difficulty to have been addressed by the time you see it. Under Kristen Coury's direction, Beth Hylton (who some may remember from her turn-of-the-century work at UNC-Chapel Hill) shows a convincing mix of resilience and vulnerability as a Kyra caught up in a war of wits. But even though Lucius Robinson's cameos in the midst as Edward are brief and winning, the Hot Summer Nights production never wholly throws off the odd taste of class struggle merged with soap opera.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.