Boasting lofty ceilings, windows to the living realm, and a torture room made just for you, the hell of Jean-Paul Sartre, as revisited by director Linda Ames Key, is slow, subtle, and poetically just.
While any mention of God or Satan is omitted (Sartre was an atheist), it doesn’t take long for an an audience to get to grips with the play. Three damned souls are led one by one into a room expecting to be tortured. Double-entendres about living and dying are delivered with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge style by a snappy valet who never blinks. Though there are no racks or thumbscrews, by play’s end, this room will come to seem as dangerous as a snake pit.
The first convict we meet, a man by the name of Cradeau, claims to be a courageous pacifist, but he nonetheless finds himself in Hell for desertion during wartime, as well as for mistreating his wife. Estelle, jejune and glamorous, prides herself on being an object of attention. While alive she found herself crushed under the weight of a lover’s demands, who then committed suicide when she tossed their child off a balcony. Inez, who murdered her cousin in order to be free to seduce his wife, is the only one of the three who readily admits her wrongdoings, affording her an understanding of sin and malice that the others lack.
The massive sliding door is locked behind them and they are left to their own devices. Mirrors are forbidden in Hell; each one must act as mirror for the other two. Sartre’s existential punchline of “Hell is other people” is now famous, but what the play actually suggests is that Hell is others who see us for who we are. It’s what keeps sleep at bay, tethers us to our enemies, and prevents us from just exiting a room and walking away. The human mind is too developed for the simplistic task of letting be. It is the cold and passionate Inez, the most intelligent of the three, who comes to the realization that they are meant to be each other’s torturers – a thought that the other two maintain they can avoid if they just ignore each other. Cradeau in particular is convinced that he could pass eternity happily if allowed to sit in silence and contemplate his thoughts. That lasts all of five seconds, and we see just what happens to three people who have demons to battle and nothing more to lose.
“Ha!” Inez declares, “To forget. How childish! I feel you in my bones. Your silence screams in my ears. You may nail your mouth shut, you may cut out your tongue, can you keep yourself from existing?” They circle the room endlessly, trying to justify their life’s choices. In the end, though, each one succumbs to the truth that their actions aren’t a detail of a greater personhood; rather, their entire being is composed solely of their life’s actions. In the world of Sartre, there is no such thing as being a victim of chance; you are the life that you create. Each character, allowed a glimpse of life as it continues on Earth, attempts to still be relevant to the pieces they left behind. But as time accelerates, they each in turn abandon their vigil to face the graves they dug. They are doomed to a Sisyphean race with each other for the rest of time, never reaching the finish line.
The perception of the unending hereafter is chilling in this production, and is brought together by the impressive set and lighting design, which illuminate three walls of scrim that hold back floor-to-ceiling mountains of trash and debris. The scrim becomes translucent as the play develops, the light design illuminating the debris from on top and slowly travelling down, until it is lit in an orange glow from underneath, suggestive of the fire-and-brimstone hell that is chillingly absent in the room. The claustrophobic effect of the room is used to a tee – it is at once too large and too small for the actors.
When it comes to the performances, each actor delivers a nuanced understanding of their characters and of Sartre’s existential intentions. Pete McElligott plays the smartly sardonic valet, who has heard all the same questions before but still takes a quiet pleasure in what he does. Jolly Abraham is a tour de force as Inez, calculating and rancorous. Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris vibrates as the coquette and amoral Estelle, lending a beautiful tragedy to a woman whose self-worth is proportional to how much she is desired. Bradford Cover excels as a Cradeau who grasps at strings of optimism. His gift of argument as a journalist is for naught in the afterworld – he might be able to talk his way out of a corner but will inevitably find himself trapped in another one.
The production leaves us wondering whether we’re supposed to pity the characters or feel as though justice has been served. We’re left with a strong sense that the three of them are still there after we’ve left the theatre, raking each other over the coals, forever circling.