The Vertical Hour was written in 2006, in the middle of the US-Iraq conflict, but it very easily could have been written today. Not only because the war continues, but because the peripheral personal struggles and inevitable familial disagreements persist. Perhaps some of the names and places have changed, but the characters and scenarios that play out at St. Stephen’s Theater should be familiar to anyone who has been following the news of late.
David Hare (The Breath of Life and Skylight) introduces us to Nadia Blye (Geneviève Perrier), a Yale professor who specializes in politics and international conflicts. In fact, she was a war correspondent before becoming a teacher, and became infamous for her unpopular views on the Iraq war and war in general. She travels to a small town outside of Wales with her boyfriend, Philip Lucas (Marc LeVasseur). Philip has taken to American life, including eschewing traditional medicine to become a physical therapist, much to the disdain of his father, Oliver (Joe Guzmán), a renowned physician in England.
The bulk of the play follows this trio as they dine and break fast on Oliver’s scenic veranda (gorgeously designed by Meghan Jones). They discuss the aforementioned topics of war and career, but dive deep into each other’s personal lives, especially Oliver and Nadia. The two butt heads on their views of the Iraq conflict and of patriotism, but they are also unafraid to challenge each other, even though this is their first meeting. Philip plays the role of “common ground,” a topic that they can both return to when the conversation runs adrift. Shannon Zura’s lighting provided the passage of time, moving the stars from a lattice fence to above our heads until the sun rose the next morning.
And it truly feels like a whole night passes. Oliver doesn’t sleep, and Nadia has jet lag, so they talk and talk. And talk. The play clocks in at about two and a half hours, including intermission, and it’s all talking. Not only that, but Hare’s dialogue is dense and quick. There are moments where one wonders if this play was originally a collection of monologues. Characters interrupt otherwise interminable speeches with brief interjections, but the end result is that of a verbal game of ping-pong. I don’t fault director Kathryn MacMillan; she handled it as best as she could, and when the script allowed the characters time to breathe, they all came to life. It’s also not MacMillan’s fault that Hare bookended the play with two throwaway scenes that take place in Nadia’s Yale office. Though one provided exposition and the other provided finale, that information could have been integrated into the rest of the play and saved everyone time and money (though we would have lost the students, Ned Pryce as the doe-eyed overconfident Senior; and Sydney Banks as newcomer with more to say than the teacher gave her credit for).
A part of Nadia’s past that struck me as particularly timely was her visit to the Oval Office to advise President George Bush on the Iraq war. She was in favor of the US’s involvement. She conceded that it became a mess, but her reputation suffered as a result. Simply meeting with President Bush branded and defined her, and that continues today on all sides of politics. We learn that her views are more nuanced and complex, drawing on her experience and expertise, and cannot fit on a protest poster. That Oliver comes to understand and respect her, and vice versa, are blueprints for what we can accomplish if we listen to one another.
The Vertical Hour: A Philadelphia Premiere by David Hare
Directed by Kathryn MacMillan
Now – February 16, 2020
Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater at 10th and Ludlow
Tickets and Info: http://www.lanterntheater.org/