"Love and sex, they mark us, whether we like it or not. Inside and out." That's Claire (Mary Lee Bednarek), a banged-up woman talking to her therapy group in the opening monologue of Michael Hollinger's world-premiere drama, Sing the Body Electric, at Theatre Exile.
And we sense immediately the chief concerns of this intricately fashioned one-act, and one of its central metaphors: the scars left by our encounters with others and the natural world.
The play's other metaphorical thread, embodied in Masha Tsimring's lighting design, is the repeated contrast of light and dark – in lightning and thunderstorms, fireflies against the night sky, power outages, the blinking on and off of a ceiling lamp, the flicking of a lighter.
Theatre Exile's production – sensitively directed by the company's producing artistic director, Deborah Block – mines Hollinger's greatest strengths: his ability to interweave comedy and pathos and his elegant craftsmanship.
It's been a prolific year for the Villanova Theatre artistic director and theater professor, with four local productions of his work. In the fall, the Arden Theatre Company mounted his world-premiere musical, TouchTones (coauthored with composer Robert Maggio), and Act II Playhouse in Ambler revived his 2000 comedy Red Herring. Still to come is 1812 Productions' Philadelphia premiere of another comedy, Hope and Gravity, opening May 2.
Sing the Body Electric lifts its title from Walt Whitman, whose poem "I Sing the Body Electric" was included in the 1855 anthology Leaves of Grass. The poem celebrates the "beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh" of men and women, before veering into an attack on slavery and its heinous uses of the body.
Hollinger's play takes its titular electricity seriously: lightning strikes that leave scars, the sparks between people that can ignite relationships or consume them.
The plot centers on the complex encounters between two fractured families in South Florida, who both help and wound each other. In this production, one happens to be African American and the other white, but race isn't explicitly an issue (the script encourages "all racial/ethnic combinations in casting").
Doris (Kimberly S. Fairbanks) is a counselor from Philadelphia who struggles with her sometimes infuriating teenage daughter, Jess (Kishia Nixon, funny and strident). Jess is smart, easily bored, floundering in physics, and possessed of a tendency, alternately irritating and salutary, to push people to their limits and beyond.
She develops a curiosity about a high-school classmate, Blake, played with exquisite tenderness by Trevor William Fayle. Blake has survived a lightning strike but can't let go of the accompanying tragedy. His father, Lloyd, a physics teacher who becomes Jess's tutor (Anthony Lawton, heart-breaking in the role), can't let go either – of the wife who left him, of the cactus and shoes she left behind, of the anger that sometimes overwhelms him. Can Doris, who is already counseling his son, ease his suffering, too?
Colin McIlvaine's simple set of artificial grass, with a table and a few chairs, doubles as various indoor rooms and a golf course, with the audience seated in a horseshoe around it.
Sing the Body Electric builds to a climax with increasingly brisk crosscutting vignettes, with hardly a wasted word and a cast that ably manages its emotional twists and leavening of humor. Only the ending seems a bit abrupt and confusing, richer in metaphor than in the emotional closure we crave.