The consummate actors Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon are treating serious New York City theatergoers to magnificence, performing in a limited engagement at 59E59 Theaters in All That Fall, A Radio Play by Samuel Beckett, directed by the esteemed Trevor Nunn. This production was first performed at Jermyn Street Theatre and then went to The Arts Theatre in London before it arrived happily on our shores. We are fortunate it found a home at 59E59 Theaters. The production requires an intimate atmosphere and as a radio play has a spare set, just enough to suggest the situation and with interesting sound effects, in a less cavernous space, both pique the audience’s imagination to fill in the background for the events.
Eileen Atkins’ Mrs. Rooney is old, widely girthed and a fount of misery, tragedy, mischievous humor and stoicism. To say Atkins wrenches all the reality from her own spirit to love Mrs. Rooney’s soul hurts and palpably express them so we are touched is an understatement. Though there isn’t anything to venerate about Mrs. Rooney, not her appearance, not her outward personality, not her career as a housewife, in her vast humanity there is a greatness that Atkins conveys. This is a woman who has endured and who will go on until her time is through. Life’s troubles have ennobled her and she has received honor for it that we recognize, though the average individual, perhaps, may not.
Atkins’ Mrs. Rooney has taken in all life’s woes, manifested them on her body and has sifted them like a clam to purify surrounding waters, i.e. her husband. She has not succumbed, but his managed to regenerate herself to get to the next step. Yes, each second of her life is troubled, yet she encourages herself to continue, for there is no other way. Suicide is not even contemplated as a way out of the tragic sufferings she hints at. Old age and everything leading up to it, the wheel and the woe, “is what it is.” She continually moves on and sifts, moves on and deals.
The plot is seemingly facile. Mrs. Rooney is traveling to the Boghill (Ireland) train station on foot to surprise her husband, blind Mr. Rooney on his birthday; she will accompany him safely home. (Though Gambon’s role doesn’t have the breadth of Atkins’, it certainly has the depth.) Every step Mrs. Rooney takes, as attested to by the laboriously echoing sound effects, is a trial and effort. And she gets through her suffering movements by commenting humorously about herself. It is this honesty and humility that engage us, young and old. She is real, the masks are off, so we become entangled with her being, reminded of our own mortality and the horrors of devouring time.
On this trip Mrs. Rooney encounters a few folks along the way. With them there is time for tragic-comical interactions, misunderstandings and events. The simplicity of getting into and out of a car for the young becomes a cataclysmic operation for the old Mrs. Rooney. In the artistic hands of Atkins with some lifting and assistance by driver/neighbor, Mr. Slocum (a fine performance by Trevor Cooper as straight man to Atkins’ funny-real difficulty getting in and out of the car) a mundane action becomes priceless, hysterical.
Though she journeys perhaps a few miles to the station, it is a journey of a billion steps Beckett in Nunn’s brilliantly executed production takes us on. For one cannot help but understand in Nunn’s vision, with Atkins, Gambon and the others forging along to bring it to fruition, that we are going on a mythic journey by the end of which we will all be different, perhaps wiser, more soulful, more empathetic.
Finally, Mrs. Rooney arrives at the station. There, she must wait anxiously, for the train is late. We discover the reason later by accident. (I will not reveal it and its importance; you’ll have to see this production to find out.) Mr. Rooney (Gambon is touching, amazing, the superlative match for Eileen Atkins in their onstage marriage) finally arrives and the two of them, an indelible couple of old folks, step by step travel a hard road home. A flock of children passes them. There is a deluge of rain, they travel alone. What they encounter together on their way in a blasted and solitary world is comic, is tragic, is humanely ourselves.
I didn’t want the 75 minutes to end. The production is great and I can’t really say how or why, but it took great love of humanity and theatrical artistry to bring in this production and all it conveys to 59E59. I am gobsmacked.
With Billy Carter, Buairi Conaghan, Trevor Cooper, Catherine Cusack, Frank Grimes, James Hayes and Liam Thrift.
All That Fall is being presented at 59E59 Theaters and will run until December 8.