‘Talking Heads’ paints pictures with words

By Gwenn Friss, Cape Cod Times ORLEANS — There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t believe your own publicity, but this time Elements Theatre Company has every right to do just that. A press release for the local production of Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” promises “a rare treat,” and that’s exactly what the Cape theater troupe delivers. When Bennett created this series of provocative and thought-provoking monologues for BBC television in 1987, he plucked just the right details to portray the lives of three lonely people. Each story is separate; there is no interaction among the three other than the fact that they are all about people trying to regain a toehold in humanity, which seems to have left them behind. “Talking Heads” begins before any of the actors walks through the darkness and takes his or her place on stage. Peter Haig’s set design has three rooms arranged, like a cross-section of a house with the audience forming the fourth wall. We are peeking in the metaphorical windows, eavesdroppers on the lives of people we might pass on the street without a second glance. Haig’s use of what looks like metal piping to not only divide the spaces, but also draw some of the details, works on a visceral level: something is going to happen here; something stark this way comes. Kudos to the sound crew. Despite the British accents, one never misses a word in this production and that’s critical in a play as dependent on words as this one. The lighting is also very well done: Some characters fade away in rapidly declining light while others simply disappear - poof! - into a darkness so deep that it’s hard to see the outline of them. This is subtle, but it helps to maintain that mood of stark expectation. Now, onto the stories. This is normally where the reviewer recaps the plot, but that presents a problem here. Nobody wants to know what happens next in a story they are hearing at a party (not that these heavily flawed characters would be invited); on a bus; in a confessional. The very nature of a story well told is that it is continuously revealing itself and its teller. So, bare bones, the three half-hour or so monologues open with actor Brad Lussier in “A Chip in the Sugar,” in which Graham is an emotionally fragile, perhaps mentally ill, middle-aged man living with his mother, who calls him her boyfriend. Next up is “Bed Among the Lentils,” in which actress Rachel McKendree plays a vicar’s wife struggling against alcohol and expectations. “I don’t know why the vicar’s wife is even expected to go to church; the barrister’s wife does not go to court,” she points out. Last up is Elements Theatre Company co-founder Sister Danielle Dwyer in “Lady of Letters,” playing a lonely but vindictive middle-aged woman set adrift after her mother’s death. She finds friends and redemption in a most unusual way. These performers are so polished that one actually believes each is telling a story, rather than relating Bennett’s dialogue (there were three verbal slips on opening night, so subtle and well-recovered, it’s likely they went mostly unnoticed.) There are some commonalities in the performances, probably attributable to Dwyer’s directing: The actors are not afraid to incorporate silent pauses into their storytelling, and the comic timing is perfect because there is a lot of humor mixed in with the pathos in Bennett’s exquisitely drawn word portraits. The actors also understand their characters, but only as much as the character understands him- or herself. We all have a baseline personality gleaned from our experiences, our faith, our physical quirks, our innate dispositions. Lussier, McKendree and Dwyer capture their characters’ baseline so every word they say after that rings true. As the British critics might say, “Brilliant, just brilliant.” Here on the other side of the pond, we agree. Don’t miss this one.