Marie, an ex-convict living in London, is free. Or is she? The question permeates the stale air of Marie’s glum studio flat, an untidy bedsit where the opened sofa bed is unmade and strewn with wrinkled clothing, the television set sits on the floor and the volume doesn’t work, and loneliness is as constant as the rain strafing the window. Marie is slumped in a chair, staring lifelessly down at the flickering images of her TV set, when someone knocks on her door. When she opens it to find her former cellmate, Lorraine, herself just recently released from prison, she has no idea what revelations are to come, about Lorraine and about herself.
As a two-character study, Chloe Moss’ “This Wide Night,” making its regional premiere at ion theatre in Hillcrest under the direction of Claudio Raygoza, is intense and slow-burning. Yolanda Franklin as the older, hapless Lorraine and Rhianna Basore as the relentlessly sad and secretive Marie bear the weight of this play’s ponderous inquiries into self-esteem and life inside and outside of the “big house,” and do so for 90 uninterrupted moments. Marie has a home, if you want to call it one, and a job in a pub (or so we’re led to believe) and seemingly some grasp of her new life, post-incarceration, even if she appears catatonic in her coping. Lorraine is without a home and without a clue about survival, gulping pills that she swears she plans to wean herself off of, and longing for connection: to Marie, to the 31-year-old son taken away from her as a child, to reality.
Both actors manage credible British accents, especially Basore, who also navigates the entire one-act play without anything more than a microscopic smile. Marie is as inwardly tortured – until, late in the going, she makes an angry confession that we saw coming -- as Lorraine is emotionally out there. She cracks wise, she snores up a storm, she feigns bravery in a world beyond prison walls that terrifies her more than what she left behind.
The complexities of Basore’s and Franklin’s performances are more impressive than Moss’ play itself, which besides its glacial pace rarely unfolds in an atmosphere anything other than grim. There’s a light moment when Marie breaks out a CD that we’re told was one of Lorraine’s favorites while in prison, and she goads her visitor into trying to dance. This ends, of course, with Lorraine throwing up on the floor. When Marie staggers home “from work,” bloody and bruised and carrying a greasy bag of English chips and gravy, and then tries to eat some, it’s a wonder she doesn’t throw up herself.
We get it. Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be if you’re not free in your soul. It’s not a novel or earth-shaking comment, and in “This Wide Night” it’s hard to be hopeful for these two women. We want to be. They care about each other on either side of the iron bars. We just want, as they do, a glimmer of hope.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.