In the New York production of Arrivals & Departures, which Alan Ayckbourn has written and directed, the initial scenario elicits our attention immediately and holds our interest with humor. Quentin (Bill Champion) is commanding the trial run of a military operation to apprehend a criminal in a railway station, where intelligence indicates the culprit will arrive within the hour. Quentin (Champion is funny in his portrayal), with the typical, brisk, unemotional, British efficiency, attempts to whip into shape his bungling operatives whose unconvincing role-playing as ordinary tourists would alert the most amateur criminal. As Quentin reminds his operatives that Cerastes, who has eluded them repeatedly, is armed and dangerous, eyewitness Barry (a very fine and moving performance by Kim Wall) arrives.
Barry is the only one who knows the identity of Cerastes by sight. Law enforcement is assured that Barry will be able to pick Cerastes out in the crowded station. Unknown to Quentin, Esme (Rachel Caffrey) has been assigned the security detail to safeguard Barry when he identifies Cerastes. When Esme arrives, Quentin begrudgingly checks her credentials and discovers she recently faced trouble in her career, a fact which at the end of the play he will use to determine her performance during the operation.
This scenario is the backdrop for Arrivals & Departures and provides some of the plot points through which Ayckbourn intersperses the action and underlying themes of the play. One of these concerns memory, the powerful influence of the past upon the present, and the nature of how individuals either attempt to confront the past to improve their lives or allow it to so intrude on their current state that they are incapable of mitigating its influence.
Of course, Ayckbourn implies that even if memory is not consciously confronted, our unconscious propels it to the surface where it rears its lovely or unlovely presence and grounds our actions and emotions until we deal with it. In his work, memories uncovered can bring healing and resolution; certainly they contribute pain upon their remembrance, which is not necessarily negative if the individual is able to work through the suffering.
As Act I continues, Ayckbourn establishes the interaction between Barry and Esme, who renames herself “Ez.” Ez, like Quentin, is emotionless and cold; however, in Quentin there is an aesthetic ambition to do a “bang up” job, so his apparent lack of emotion belies the feeling and interest underneath. With Ez we sense her detachment is born out of alienation, disaffection, anger and hurt (Caffrey’s portrayal is excellent). When she refuses to be engaged by Barry’s friendly, human conversation to while away the waiting time, and when she insists that she is being “professional,” we sense it is a cover for deep personal issues.
Ayckbourn, through the lighting, minimalistic set and staging, and clever use of the cast reveals pivotal events Ez recalls from childhood and adulthood. We understand that she has allowed these loaded emotional high points to determine her present and in their remembrance there is a potential of working through the pain. We also realize that if she does not ameliorate the inner suffering, it will most likely erode her future happiness. It is clear in her superficial treatment of Barry that her inner torment and inability to work through personal and psychological trauma has warped her personality and perspective.
By the end of Act One, Ayckbourn reveals that Ez is at a point of stasis, unable to move backward or forward. Though she is at a critical juncture in her life, Barry’s kindness, humor and humanity appear to break through Ez’s cover and the witness and his protector (ironic roles for both) establish a bond which may be productive for Ez’s growth and recovery.
This reflects a positive situation all around, for the military operation appears to be successful. Cerastes, identified by his clothing, is apprehended and Ez has performed admirably in protecting Barry.
In a clever twist Act II essentially begins as Act I began earlier, but this time it is Barry’s perspective and past that Ayckbourn uncovers. The staging is reversed in mirror image and though the backdrop remains the same and we hear and see the same action and dialogue as Barry enters followed by Ez, the high points revealed are events from Barry’s life.
These glimmers of truth encompass vital factors about Barry’s familial relationships and those who are important to him. The difference between Barry’s life and Ez’s reveals that as Barry has aged, he has worked through sorrow, pain and hurt and has managed to retain a loving nature. How he has done this and what helped him is a key component that Ayckbourn gradually and brilliantly brings into focus as the military operation continues and eventually heats toward resolution.
However, the result the playwright has led the audience to imagine possible is not the result achieved. The conclusion that he materializes from the fragments of emotional memory, psychological trauma, and the evolution of his characters is not only unexpected, it lands with an explosion and enlightens toward revelation and understanding of the narrowness of life’s moments.
In the play’s last scene Ayckkbourn draws us into an epiphany of clear, startling truths about Barry and Ez, and the relationship they have forged during this “arrival and departure” from each other’s lives. He also shows how the randomness of circumstance can upend the moments of our lives to create chaos that even the preparedness and organization at the level of a military operation cannot prevent.
Ayckbourn’s direction and the talented cast deliver a memorable production that will not easily fade from consciousness. The playwright in this World Premiere once again elucidates the power each of us have to make bridges to others while digging deeply into ourselves. For both good and ill these pathways challenge us to change and evolve. The process is ongoing, natural and holistically our own. That is why it is senseless to deny this organic shaping of our identity through memory which Ayckbourn suggests can only bring further suffering, a suffering that will eventually catch up with us when we least expect it.