By Lorraine Wardle
Silence isn’t always golden. Sometimes it can be torture.
For two characters in solitary confinement, the voice of the other is the only relief from the agony of silence.
“Can You Hear Me?,” the latest production at the Rust Belt Theater Company, explores the relationship forged by two people in extraordinary circumstances. The play is written and directed by Warren playwright, Brian Lee.
“Can You Hear Me?” takes place in an institution for the criminally insane. Denise and Rick are placed in adjoining solitary-confinement cells. They discover that the wall that separates their cells is thin enough for them to talk through.
Lee’s two characters are polar opposites. When the play opens, Denise is quiet and still, barely moving. She seems sedated, possibly by drugs or maybe by her own misery. Then Rick is put into the cell next to her. His method of coping is the opposite of hers. He is loud and frenetic; he never stops moving or talking, quoting movies and doing impressions.
At first, Denise cannot stand Rick’s cacophony. But over time, she begins to share his need for companionship. The two get to know each other through conversations through the wall, and they build a relationship so strong that they eventually realize they cannot live without each other.
Throughout the play, Lee includes short scenes that show the characters’ lives in the “before time” — the time before they committed the criminal acts that led to their incarceration. These scenes give the audience insight into the characters’ personalities and help the audience build understanding and empathy for them.
The performances of the two actors playing Denise and Rick, Liz and Craig Conrad, are nothing short of amazing. Each brings realism and sympathy to Lee’s complicated characters. Their performances are so different yet both so heart-breaking.
As Denise, Liz creates a broken soul. She is fragile and withdrawn and has completely given up hope. As she communicates with Rick, she begins to transform. Yet Liz never lets the audience forget that Denise is a seriously disturbed individual. Her subtle mannerisms and delivery reveal the truth.
In sharp contrast, Craig’s Rick is frantic and brash as he reaches out for human contact. As he talks to Denise, he shows his vulnerability and grief, creating a complex and crushed character.
Both actors convey different, poignant portrayals of desperation that turn to hope and, inevitably, heartbreak.
Liz and Craig are married in real life, and their bond is evident from the moment they begin interacting with each other. The “before-time” scenes are beautiful, sweet and full of love, while their interactions as inmates are full of pain and longing.
Brian Lee’s production is a beautiful and tragic tale of two broken individuals. It reminds us of the power and the necessity of love.
“Can You Hear Me?” continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Rust Belt Theater Company in the Calvin Center, 755 Mahoning Ave. For reservations, call 330-507-2358.