by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move
It is a rather dystopian future. Or is it the present? In Wallace Shawn’s, The Designated Mourner, the timelines lines are blurred, and a few other things too.
In the current iteration of this play, the world though, seems crystal clear within the vague, shadowy backdrops and punctuated fragments of pieced together monologue. There is no visible action whatsoever. No opulent set. And no indication really about who any of the outside forces are, even through the constant references of leaders and fighting rebels.
Rendered in the imagination, however, are the pictures of all the above – vividly. Perhaps because the current political climate everywhere, is uncomfortably exposing too many likenesses to the fictitious example here. At least for some.
A fascist government is imprisoning and executing anyone suspected of subversion, sympathizing, or merely acknowledging a faction of lower classes who are attempting to rebel against unbreakable poverty and repression.
In The Designated Mourner, that also includes privileged intellectuals and writers like Howard (Larry Pine), a once favorite son of the elite upper classes but who rejected a high-brow destiny to become a respected poet. Jack and the political essays of his youth are the main pain-point of this story which is somewhat narrated by Judy (Deborah Eisenberg), Howard’s daughter and chiefly by her husband Jack (Shawn) an embittered man who grows more and more distant toward both Howard and Judy, and the warfare taking place in the background. The play is designed through the memories of each of the characters.
As Jack narrates, his descent into cognitive dissonance through nervous breakdown is almost surreal. His OK-ness with all that happens around him and with his wife and father-in-law, their imprisonment and deaths. His obsession with his own identity compared with Howard. His intellectual juxtaposition to Judy’s reserved plea for emotion. The chill factor that almost imperceptibly envelopes his dialog like a favorite shawl, which occasionally on the surface deviates into annoyance but points to underlying hatred. And finally Jack’s barely ceremonious wrap up, as the sole survivor of Howard’s literary circle, as the eerie designated mourner for all involved.
Sitting with this entire experience feels like a vast emptiness to which it is strangely easy to surrender. They all seem to do so. Not even one moment of fighting back the tide, leaving the impression of a rather shockingly emotionless acceptance.
The Designated Mourner is a striking embodiment of how an entire way of life, all to easily slips away.