Silence is the theater's version of negative space: an absence, as in a painting or a sculpture, that can suddenly constitute the most undeniable presence in the room. That's because so many extreme emotions—from shock or judgment to wonder and delight—start or end in a place beyond words. Case in point: Skylight, now opening Burning Coal Theatre Company's twentieth season.
In David Hare's domestic and political drama about a family shattered by infidelity, death, and, most of all, its own privilege, silence sometimes becomes the fourth character on stage, every bit as subtle and palpable as actors Matthew Tucker, Emily Barrett Rieder, and Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis.
There is much to praise in Rieder's calibrated reading of Kyra Hollis, an enigmatic young woman who, mainly by chance, became the fourth wheel that completed the Sergeant family, the owners of the restaurant where she found a job upon arriving in London. But mark well her silences under John Gulley's direction, particularly in the early scenes, and also at crucial points later. At times, they're telling the largest part of the story.
Gradually we learn that she fled the family several years before, when Tom (Davis) accidentally/on purpose let his now-deceased wife, Alice, learn that he'd been having an affair with Kyra for years. Now, Tom's teenage son, Edward (Tucker), whom Kyra helped raise, arrives on Kyra's doorstep without warning, later followed by Tom himself. Her courtesy and patience at these intrusions are clear. So is the physical distance she maintains with both men, and her choice not to turn her back on either one. She pointedly doesn't interrupt their awkward silences; instead, she hears them fully out. What we hear slowly discloses how right she was to leave.
Skylight is hardly the first Burning Coal production to bear the curse of topicality. In a season when a billionaire has bragged about the license he has taken with women's bodies without their consent, a faint, familiar nausea arises when neither son nor father thinks to phone ahead to ask permission to visit—when a child of privilege complains about the inconvenience of Kyra's absence, and when Tom informs her, "I thought it was time ... Time you and I saw each other again." Repeatedly, he presumes an agency for himself that he myopically denies his counterpart.
To be clear, there has been, and still remains, no small love among this trio. But something else has compromised it—something that keeps Kyra's sharpest wits about her as she listens, mostly in silence, until she decides she's heard enough.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Sound of Silence"