by Loren Noveck · November 14, 2013
Indie Artists on New Plays #23 Loren Noveck looks at Cloven Tongues by Victor Lesniewski at the Wild Project
When Lela, an illegal alien of uncertain nationality, is arrested crossing the Canadian border into upstate New York carrying drugs, she clams up almost immediately. Even after being rescued from immigration detention by Jenny, a cloyingly helpful social worker who finds her a temporary job and residence (as housekeeper for a local Catholic priest) and helps her with the paperwork to legalize her status, Lela says nothing: not where she’s from, not how she ended up in Canada, not who she was working for. Only a medical report hints at the damage, physical and psychological, that has been done to her. She flinches at casual physical contact, and answers direct questions as monosyllabically and nonspecifically as she can without being rude. But as time goes on, Father Ronald is slowly able to pry a few chinks in her polite, obdurate silence—albeit not in an entirely useful way; mostly he frustrates her by probing on the subject of her religious beliefs. And then, one day, a charged encounter between Ronald and Lela—which she finds suspicious and terrifying and he sees as possibly miraculous—cracks open her defenses, and lets out her darkest memories: of war, the loss of her family, the horrors of sex trafficking.
There are clearly noble intentions in Victor Lesniewski’s script, but they’re often obscured by clumsy execution, in both the writing and Michelle Bossy’s direction. The first section of the play feels circular and repetitive, with both Jenny and Father Ronald fixated on Lela’s refusal to open up to them (though Jenny is more concerned with the blank spaces on Lela’s immigration/ asylum paperwork and Ronald with her spirituality or religious beliefs). Each issue is raised over and over, and though a point is being made about Lela’s obvious discomfort and their dogged but ineffectual desire to help, the insistence makes them seem naive and at times even slightly cruel, as well as sometimes making sections of the play feel uncomfortably like a lecture on Catholic doctrine. And for a priest and Catholic social worker who seem to regularly work with abused children, the naivete feels off: surely Lela isn’t the first person they’ve met whose circumstances have left her reluctant to trust and suspicious of bureaucracy and organized religion? And while the piece certainly does not sugar-coat Lela’s experiences—accessing her memories does not in any way lead to her healing, nor does her late, tentative step toward accepting some kind of blessing—there is a tendency to make the effects of her traumatic experiences very literal: this person betrayed her in this way in the past, therefore she cannot trust that person.
The play’s most interesting relationship—or at least the one that has the most layers and ambiguity—is between Lela and Paul, a local young man with a dead-end job delivering groceries. Lela is the most exciting person he’s ever met; he’s almost starstruck by her and would do anything for her. She, on the other hand, sees his usefulness—he brings her snacks and cosmetics and toiletries—as well as appreciating his lack of inquisitiveness, his tendency to rattle on about himself rather than interrogating her. We’re never quite sure if they like each other more than they’re useful to each other.
The center section of the piece, which slips out of prosaic realism into a complicated jumble of flashbacks to Lela’s past and flash forwards to scenes from later in the play, with the present-day characters doubling as figures from earlier in Lela’s life, brings a welcome structural shake-up. However, the two streams, Lela’s childhood in Bosnia and shocking highlights from the rest of the play, don’t integrate particularly well. The effect feels more like a movie trailer, showing some of the key plot points in the second act, than a way to actually show the interlocking of past and present.
The ensemble is, by and large, made up of good actors doing their best to infuse richer character into the material, though this effort sometimes goes a little over the top. Catherine Curtin, in particular, has nailed the type of Jenny: an overly doting social worker, so devoted to her job that she’s almost lost sight of her own human needs. She can’t help effusing in a literally touchy-feely way that visibly makes Lela uncomfortable. Alex Mickiewicz, too, brings a goofy warmth and charm to a character who could easily come off as simply not too bright.
I think, in the end, Cloven Tongues has a valuable point to make, about wounds that can’t be healed, about the way the best intentions in the world can’t paper over certain traumas. Lela isn’t refusing to be healed; she’s refusing to play along with a game of healing that isn’t entirely about her. Yet I wish the play had more subtlety, more richness, and more ambiguity in the path it takes to get to that point.