When darkness of character pervades the whole of a family’s history, what matter is it to the world at large? Does it affect society in the grand scheme of things? All families have secrets, some of which are not only disturbing but destructive. It is the reason that, often, extraordinary effort is made to conceal those things, even from others within the family.
Kissing The Floor, written by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by Ianthe Demos, is a thought-provoking and disturbing play providing a compelling view into the hidden world of the dysfunctional psyche of a family. McLaughlin deftly explores questions of loyalty and obsession, fantasy and reality. She does so by presenting contemporary themes of personal and familial dysfunction in a radical recasting of the dramatic arc of Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone, yet retains some of that work’s thematic and structural elements.
This story takes place in the Depression Era America with set design by James Hunting. The set is bare-bones, with only a table and a few chairs populating a once elegant room, given the pattern of the wooden floor. A bare light hangs over the table from the remnant of an ornate ceiling while a broken crystal chandelier lies at the corner of the stage. These minimalist details evoke a house that once was one of wealth and privilege.
The play opens on a dimly lit stage to rhythmic tapping. As the light comes up, we see a young woman, Annie (Christina Bennett Lind), crouching on the floor, tapping with her hand. Another young woman, Izzy (Akyiaa Wilson), standing some distance away, tells us why Annie is tapping Morse code on the floor; she thinks she is speaking with the dead.
Izzy is Annie’s sister and is a narrator and participant in what is about to occur throughout this memory play. She tells us of a game that Annie would play with her and her brothers, Paul and Eddie. Annie would ask questions involving a journey that always started in a dark forest. The questions forced the participant to answer creatively about choices made, and places visited. It was a process of creating a whole narrative adventure, and it always ended with a question about what you see at the end of the journey.
For Izzy, it is always nothing, a total blank, a result that she finds frightening. We learn that Annie is looking for a conversation with one particular dead person, her father, who is also her brother. During Izzy’s conversation with Annie, the relationship between Annie and her father/brother becomes clear. We discover that Annie became her father’s caretaker after her mother’s suicide caused her father to blind himself. It is also a time when the current situation with her brother Paul is revealed.
Paul (Leon Ingulsrud) is a pedophile currently in jail after being found in a little girl’s room while she was sleeping. He has a twin brother, Eddie (Leon Ingulsrud), who we meet later as he provides an extended narrative history of the family. Another character must be mentioned, the prison warden Brennan (Rinde Eckert). The conversations between Annie and Brennan establish and clarify a central theme of the play.
Annie regularly visits Paul at the prison. She does not like being there and is shaking the whole time. However, she understands her brother and knows who he is will never change. He is a pedophile, and her understanding of that will have an impact near the end of the play.
The ensemble in this show does an outstanding job. Christina Bennett Lind as Annie gives us a direct and well executed view of a frightened, emotionally conflicted woman amid a psychological breakdown. Wilson convincingly plays Izzy, showing us a character who appears balanced and somewhat detached from the emotional conflict but still leaves room for questions about what may be behind that stable, rational façade. Eckert, as the Warden, plays a crucial part as the bridge to the understanding of the show’s central theme and later provides a path to the ending. Finally, Ingulsrud is both Paul and Eddie, presenting characters who, although growing up together, developed radically different reactions to the dysfunction that was and is their family. His embodiment of the disturbed mental state of Paul is exceptional, as is his detached, somewhat arrogant depiction of Eddie.
An interesting element of this production is that two characters act as narrators clarifying some of the settings and filling in some of the familial histories that led to the disturbing behavior of the principal participants in the tragedy. They are, in effect, a Greek chorus guiding the audience with commentary and reflections. It is an approach that works best when the narrator provides only enough information to set the stage for the action to follow. The character of Izzy does so effectively, but Eddie’s monologue is too long. The information in that monologue is necessary, but perhaps the scene could have been structured to create a better flow.
A vital production consideration is that, given the minimalism of the set, lighting design becomes critical. Good design helps focus and structure scenes without there being props. Driscoll Otto’s design does a superb job of supporting the action. Although the play has minimal sound effects, the ones used are significant. Brendan Aanes’ sound design is well-done, and the mix of music from the 1930s played before the show is a subtle way of setting the period. The costumes designed by Kenisha Kelly were also a perfect fit for the play. All of the elements blended seamlessly.
Kissing The Floor (through March 12, 2023)
One Year Lease Theater Company
Theater Four at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets: call 212-714-2442 or visit http://www.oneyearlease.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission