A skillful production of psychological drama 'The Pillow Book' from Cohesion and Strand

There’s an inevitable competition between Baltimore’s small theater companies as they scramble for limited dollars and audiences. But there’s also a natural sense of camaraderie as the region’s actors, directors, and designers circulate through many of the theaters, making friends along the way.

Cohesion Theatre is fostering the latter tendency. This relatively new troupe is co-producing Anna Moench’s “The Pillow Book” with the Strand Theater in the Cohesion space on Canton Square. Cohesion also initiated ParityFest, a five-and-a-half-week presentation of readings of female-written plays involving more than 20 different Baltimore theaters that kicked off last week.

The Strand, of course, has long dedicated itself to finding and promoting new plays by women. It found “The Pillow Book” close to home, for Moench is an alumna of Towson’s Notre Dame Prep, though she has already had plays produced in New York and beyond. This three-character play bounces back and forth in time like a pingpong game with a low net. But anyone who has ever enjoyed a French New Wave film should be able to put the puzzle pieces together and enjoy Moench’s remarkable language and insights into male-female interaction.

The Cohesion production team of set designer Alicia Stanley, lighting designer Lana Riggins, and technical director Brad Norris has created three white-cloth walls inside the Church on the Square’s sanctuary. The audience’s chairs climb the steps from inside the rectangle through the missing fourth wall to the altar. Projected onto the sheets are photographs of Japanese calligraphy, the African Serengeti, ski slopes, and urban America. Huddled inside this white cubicle are one actor, two actresses, a wooden bench, and two wooden chairs.

As Deborah (Rebecca Ellis) stands in one corner as if invisible, John (Joseph Coracle) and his wife Deb (Michele Massa) curl up on the bench and discuss whether it’s time to have a baby. He’s in favor, but she’s opposed, so John goes into his puppy-dog, wheedling little-boy act to get Deb to change her mind. She digs in her heels and gets angrier and angrier, and suddenly the idea of a baby seems less likely to cement the marriage than to shatter it.

Moench escalates the conflict so gradually from good-humored banter to fierce argument that we are caught off guard. She does this again and again throughout the show, allowing her dramatic crises to emerge from mundane conversations and seemingly minor irritations. Turning points in real life rarely announce themselves with trumpets blaring; they often ambush when we’re only half paying attention. Moench captures that dynamic as few playwrights have.

The next thing we know, the stocky, dark-haired Massa is standing in another corner as if unseen, and the slender, redheaded Ellis is driving a jeep through the Serengeti with the balding, slouching Coracle beside her. If John was a passive-aggressive manipulator in the previous scene, he’s the victim of Ellis’ control freak in this one. She’s a guide who refuses to take tourist John to the elephants he wants to see, insisting that dung beetles and termites are more important to the savannah ecology. Their argument, you guessed it, ratchets up from the silly to the tragic.

Then we’re back in John’s marriage with dark-haired Deb, who’s outraged that he bought a puppy without even asking her first. Then we’re on a ski slope where Deborah is a ski rescuer assisting John with his broken leg. Then John is explaining to his invisible daughter that he and her mother are getting divorced. Then we’re in a hospital where Deborah is a doctor explaining to John that his wife is having difficulty in childbirth. During all this, Deb and Deborah never speak to each other—or even look at one another. It’s as if they’re non-overlapping aspects of romantic interaction: the relationship after you’ve lived together for a while and the relationship before you live together.

Coracle, who’s very effective at giving his self-absorbed, whining character some redeeming charm, always seems to be playing the same person, as does Massa, his workaholic, unbending lawyer wife. Ellis, who is able to project both a tough crust and a quivering interior, seems to be playing different women, whose professions and relationships with John may be quite different but whose personalities are much the same.

Though the narrative chronology has been shattered and scrambled, Moench gives us enough clues in each two-person dialogue to let us know where we are. And director Jonas David Grey helps the three actors always seem like the same people, even if they’ve been slightly changed by past events that haven’t even occurred yet in the play. As a result, this skillful production allows us to see patterns in behavior and unforeseen consequences that we might have missed in a more conventional play. 

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