There’s been an accident. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that Janna was driving, and we know that Don was making Janna laugh, and we know that someone didn’t make it through the accident alive. Twelve long years have passed since then, but sometimes life does not go on, as Janna says.
Unless somebody pushes it forward.
In this case that somebody is Brian Sutow, the Producing Artistic Director of No Rules Theater Company. His play The Personal(s), which is adapted from a film by Stanley Tucci (which in turn was a remake of a film by the great-grandnephew of Vincent van Gogh), puts Don and Janna to work on the project of saving their marriage by pretending to meet for the first time, again, and again. They take turns composing personal ads that describe components of themselves or attributes they hope will move them toward a future in which couples dance together, kiss each other, want each other, and forgive each other and themselves.
Serious reporter seeks aggressive woman. Professional woman offers relief to funny but sweet man. Blind man seeks sighted mate. Woman seeks peace. Et cetera.
As Janna, Anne Kanengeiser projects an emotional weariness that she doesn’t think she’s likely to escape, though she’s willing to try. In all the different roles that she and Don assume, she tells him that she loves her husband, even though he hurt her, even though she’s nauseated by the thought of having sex, and I believe her because she keeps showing up.
Michael Kramer’s Don works harder at the roles they set out for each other because he knows he hurt her and he feels ashamed, but he doesn’t understand the circumstance that made him do the thing he wishes he had never done. He’s simultaneously trying to press her for an explanation and show her that he can be patient.
“We’re trying to refind what went right,” Don tells Henry, the bartender. To do that they need to tell each other what went wrong as they might tell the story to a stranger or a friend. That seems right to me: the telling has to come and yet it can’t come in the context of betrayal and diminishment and damage, no matter how much you may want to pass on from that context to the next phase of your marriage.
The best part of the play is its depiction of the single rope that separate lives become when people wrap themselves around each other and around each other. Don and Janna understand that only the rope of the life they’ve lived together can get them out of the pit their life has pushed them into. So they try to say again what they’ve already said, and hope that it will finally mean what they need it to mean.
The last of their blind dates is a replay of the first, with virtually the same dialog, all of which means more the second time around than it meant the first time. It doesn’t come out right the second time either, but you sense that they’ll keep trying.
Daniel Conway’s set looks very much like the kind of place a man might choose to meet his wife again and again — a bistro with checkered table cloths and posters of magicians on the walls. And Lighting Designer Cory Ryan Frank makes most of the illumination on stage seem to come from portrait lamps and hanging globes.
In one touching scene, young Henry (played by Spencer Trinwith) tells Janna why he ran away from home at 17. “I couldn’t stand my father,” he says. “The way he let everybody walk all over him. I couldn’t bear to have any part of that in myself, so I left. After I’d been gone a couple of days, I was lying in some dirty hostel, and I let out this little stupid yawn which was just like his. Exactly like he used to yawn. And I realized that it isn’t possible to run away.”
That poignant moment puts its finger on an aspect of human experience that everybody has to face at one time or another, and it’s the sort of thing that wins a lot of sympathy for these characters, but it doesn’t generate much dramatic energy. The play’s big challenge, in fact, is infusing these diminished people with the urgency required to break their own inertia.
Running time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Personal(s) plays through May 18, 2013 at No Rules Theatre Company at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.