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REVIEW: "Skylight" - Chance Theater, Anaheim

“…Kyra fled all that she had—an older man’s love and financial security—and all that she had betrayed: another woman’s trust.”

Tear-stained stories of impossible love have been a staple of theater for centuries. And David Hare’s 1995 heart-piercing drama, “Skylight,” his tightest, and arguably his best melodrama yet, delivers big on the rueful pleasures of that genre at Chance Theater, Anaheim. The show previewed on April 19th and opened last Saturday night, April 27th, to regular performances on the Cripe Stage at Chance, continuing through May 19th.

Raised in upper-middle-class luxury in leafy Surrey, East London school teacher Kyra Hollis was formerly the right-hand woman in Tom's catering empire as well as Edward’s ‘sometime’ babysitter. Something happened to make her turn her back on breakfasts in bed with real linen and silver coffee pots — something had compelled her to seek out the scratchy wool sweater of austerity and public service.

It is winter in London, and apparently almost as cold inside as it is outdoors. As the night unfolds, all is revealed.

In short order, Kyra is visited unexpectedly by Edward Sergeant and, later on the same night, his father Tom Sergeant. Kyra had been living with the Sergeant family years earlier but left after her affair with Tom was discovered by Tom's wife, who has since died. Edward, perhaps unaware of his father’s relationship with Kyra, now accuses her of having left him as well, as he saw her as more like a big sister. He is hurt, and he demands to know why she left his life.

Soon after, Tom, a wealthy restaurateur, with a real-life dossier strikingly similar to English designer and hotel/restaurateur Sir Terence Orby Conran, appears unheralded, and for no apparent reason. After some conversation, Kyra's less-than-glamorous lifestyle leads him to poke fun at her to the point of insult, accusing her of self-punishment. Meanwhile, as Kyra cooks a dinner, the talk turns to their relationship. It becomes clear that their chances to be rekindled rest on whether one of them can change preconceived notions of the other.

They are hardly a well-matched pair — this couple that has been given such transfixing life in two of the most expert stage performances you’re likely to see for many seasons. As embodied by Jessica Erin Martin (“Criminal Minds,” “Grimm,” “The Last Ship,” “Z Nation”) and Steve Marvel ("A Kind of Magic," "The Algerian," "Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards: Reloaded"), neither have any of the things in common that usually make for a fine romance. And therein lies the tragedy.

In age, attitude and even metabolism, they’re separated by a forbidding gulf. Yet, as you watch, Ms. Martin and Mr. Marvel move magnetically toward and then away from each other in Oanh Nguyen’s exquisitely balanced direction. Nevertheless, you can’t help thinking that on some profound level these two were made to be together.

The modest, unrefined fixtures in the set say something about Kyra’s life and the choices she’s made. Even the way she prepares that simple meal is telling. Both actors talk at a tremendously impressive clip, yet are both perfectly audible throughout. But although the dialogue zings and snaps, the drama huddles over what turns out to be two ex-lovers stirring the embers of their long ago affair. However, when they get into the real source of their estrangement: fundamentally incompatible world views and social policy, they react spontaneously like Brechtian sock puppets.

And as their characters rebel against and succumb to their mutual attraction, you’re always aware of their looking outward, too, trying to identify and defend their positions in the flux of the post-Thatcher Britain of the early 1990s. This means that on one level, “Skylight” is a debate play à la George Bernard Shaw, with all of the attendants speechifying.

Tom, being a hardscrabble entrepreneur from a decidedly unglamorous background, has very little sympathy for the less extraordinary. Conversely, Kyra comes from money, but has decided to live her life in relative poverty, practically fetishizing the working-class folks she overhears on her daily commute. Both characters can be insufferable at times.

Yet while you’re listening to the arguments waged by Ms. Martin’s 30-ish Kyra, and Mr. Marvel’s Tom, two decades her senior, you never feel that what they’re saying doesn’t come naturally to them — or that the personal stakes for each aren’t painfully high. Nor do you see them as victims of a cruel, crazy society that just won’t let these lovers be.

Mr. Hare makes it very clear that his characters are responsible for themselves and for their choices in life. He has also given them detailed and evocative back stories, imparted in piecemeal, that make sense of every move Kyra and Tom make, and every word they utter. That Kyra has chosen to live like this comes as a shock to Tom, who responds with the startling and disruptive energy of an unforeseen tornado. When Kyra was with Tom, they lived luxuriously, right along with his wife and two children.

The requisite fierceness of that dichotomy is never more apparent than in the performances of these two highly polished actors—former lovers brought together for one night of reunion and recrimination. Together, they ply a fine-grained “in-the-moment” naturalism rooted in everyday activities that includes Sam Bullington, the young actor who crucially completes the ensemble as Tom’s teenage son, Edward. Heartbroken, vulnerable, a bit awkward, and combative, Edward, in bookend scenes at the play’s beginning and end, is affectingly poised between these two poles, a youth who has yet to make the leap to adulthood.

Ms. Martin emanates a hypnotic presence onstage, and is obdurately calm and centered. But Ms. Martin achingly conveys just how hard-won this defensive stillness is. She has an uncommon gift for radiating complex layers of feeling by simply inhabiting a space.

Mr. Marvel’s Tom, in contrast, is a blinding kinetic force, a creature who never stops moving, advancing and retreating in a flurry of knife-edged angles, forever casing out and sizing up his environment. Tom is a post-kitchen-sink-drama figure: a bloke who’s made it and can’t imagine wanting to go back to the fruit stand, or wherever it is he’s from. While he listens to Kyra, he makes sure that we know he’s listening. Twitching, he calculates each arm extension and leg jerk to maximum effect. It’s his show, and he wants us to know it’s his show. In late middle age, he has the impatient solipsism of a successful man of his generation. Yet he also knows Kyra as no one else does; you could even call her his creation.

Or you might have once, anyway. Kyra is fully adult now, and what you see happening between her and Tom is a battle between undeniable instincts and measured self-awareness. While Kyra was close to both him and his wife, she was there because she was secretly his mistress. She had met Tom when she was only 18 — walked out, and it would seem, grew up. Now Tom, after only a year as a widower, has come to reclaim the girl who got away. The story might even be called, “The Temptations of Kyra,” with Tom playing the part of a nigh-irresistible inveigler.

Kyra fled all that she had—an older man’s love and financial security—and all that she had betrayed: another woman’s trust. Now Kyra is finding refuge in the “real” world of financial struggle and overwork. This seems more right to her than love, which, like much else in her life, she treats as a kind of moral challenge.

Skylight was first staged in 1995 at London’s National Theatre and then transferred to the West End and Broadway, touting seven Tony Nominations, and winning the 1996 Olivier Award for Play of the Year. Back then, David Hare’s two-and-a-half-hander struck a timely nerve in Britain with its juxtaposition of entrepreneurial swagger and socially-conscious altruism, personified in the two spirited lead characters. The ideological stakes are still hot today with the play’s themes and feel no less relevant in Director Oahn Nguyen’s very competent quickening.

But starting with Bruce Goodrich’s superb Set, along with essential Lighting Design by Matt Schleicher and Sound Design by Ryan Brodkin, summoning a London both private and public, Director Nguyen makes the dramatic duality of the play more explicit and resonant, without sacrificing the very particular emotional intensity at its center.

Unlike most theater works by Mr. Hare (“Plenty,” “Racing Demon,” “Stuff Happens”), “Skylight” takes place in a single setting. That’s the simple, intricately assembled Northwest London apartment occupied by Kyra, which is designed to have few modern comforts.

The Costume Designer is Adriana Lambarri, the Prop Designer is Megan Hill, and the Stage Manager is Bebe Herrera. Dramaturg is Jocelyn L. Buckler and Dialect Coach is Glenda Morgan Brown.

Executive Producers areTod & Linda White, and Season Producers are Bette & Wylie Aitken. The Associate Season Producer is Laurie Smits Staude.

“Skylight” continues at Chance Theater @Bette Aitken theater arts Center, presented on the Cripe Stage, through May 19th. Performances are Thu, May 2nd at 7:30pm, Fri, May 3rd at 8pm (with Free Wine Tasting), Sat, May 4th at 8pm, Sun, May 5th at 3pm, Fri, May 10th at 8pm (with Free Beer Tasting), Sat, May 11th at 3pm, Sat, May 11th at 8pm, Sun, May 12th at 3pm, Fri, May 17th at 8pm, Sat, May 18th at 3pm, Sat, May 18th at 8pm, and Sun, May 19th at 3pm. Tickets may be purchased at This show is Highly Recommended!

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

Photos are courtesy of Doug Catiller, True Image Studio


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