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Slow-building ‘Poison’ rewards audience’s patience

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dutch playwright Lot Vekemans’ 2010 play “Poison” won Holland’s most prestigious award for playwriting and has since been translated into several languages. This intimate little play received its U.S. premiere in New York in 2016 and is currently playing at the Desert Rose Playhouse in a finely directed production by Shiela Freed.

“Poison” is a simply structured play that is slow to unfold. The two characters, He and She, were once married, but the premature death of their son destroyed their relationship (although we don’t learn this for quite a long while). The play initially strains our patience, as we watch the two tentatively skirt around matters of importance and wonder about the nature of the relationship and why they are meeting. But this deceptively simple play about complex human emotions and ineradicable bonds eventually pulls the attentive viewer into its orbit and doesn’t let go.

The play is about the different ways people grieve. He is one who runs away (he has a speech about his love of jogging; he feels with every step he is getting further away from his problems). He left the relationship on New Year’s Eve 1999, as though terrified of the coming apocalypse. She stays, both physically and figuratively. While he has moved to another country and remarried, her grief is still very much with her and she visits the grave of their dead son regularly. She has also succumbed to an addiction to pills. The climax of the play, such as it is, comes when He tells She that perhaps the key is simply acceptance. While She wonders if she will ever be happy again, He tells of an experience he had listening to a man singing Leonard Bernstein’s song, “It Must Be So.”

“My world is dust now and all I loved is dead. Oh, let me trust now in what my master said: ‘There is a sweetness in every woe.’ It must be so. It must be so.”

It wasn’t until this poignant moment, frankly – quite near the end of the play – that I realized I actually liked the play. It requires patience and attentive viewing, but in the end such patience is rewarded, especially as played by actors Karen Byers and Christopher Chase, who in many ways resemble the characters, another couple, they played in “Constellations.”

Byers is especially good, shifting from one emotion to another with lightning exactitude, for instance from a vague sense of a woman drowning to vitriolic hostility, keenly expressed by a woman who just wants her ex-husband to feel the pain that she does. Chase is good as He, but evinces the same gestures, mannerisms and facial expression, the same character rhythm, he manifested in “Constellations.”

“Poison” is playing through May 27 at Desert Rose Playhouse, 6921 Montgomery NE, Albuquerque. Go to desertroseplayhouse.net or call 563-0316 for reservations.

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