Symbolism ain’t for sissies. The Blind, by Belgian playwright and poet Maurice Maeterlinck, is being staged by Brown University Theatre and Sock & Buskin (through April 22), and it’s for theatergoers who like their whiskey neat and their theater without apologies.
Which is certainly not to say without imagination. Written in 1890 in French, as Les aveugles, the play looks at the metaphorical blindness of our species and would have us wallow in our plight. As it opens, a bench full of people, complete with collapsible canes and dark glasses, are dozing and leaning against one another in vague anticipation. Occasionally unreadable documents flutter down around them onto a thickly littered floor.
Director Rebecca Schneider, for her part in the cleverness, animates this static premise and finds ways to spin fresh variations for us in 85 intermission-free minutes. By the time we leave the 16 blind and confined wanderers, they will have lifted themselves above this nihilistic morass, but only by being suspended on ropes and rope ladders.
The assembled are awaiting a priest of some sort, but while the playwright had him lying dead on the stage throughout, Schneider’s adaptation employs a useful touch: the ever-silent “priest,” lounging about in a swivel chair within a Plexiglas cube, is Brown professor emeritus of theater arts James O. Barnhill. Spot on. And what a hopeful difference: the availability of truth is not dead and impossible, just agonizingly remote.
While this play and any production of it are probably beyond the endurance of all but the most dedicated and curious theater-philes, The Blind is nevertheless fascinating as a precursor. The opening line by the first speaker is “Is he not coming yet?” It doesn’t take a theater scholar to look ahead a few years (or back, if you’re Samuel Beckett) and imagine an endless and similar conversation between Didi and Gogo. What Waiting for Godot accomplished a half-century after The Blind was to show how a play packed with symbolism and ideas could come alive. If a playwright can come up with individualized characters, however abstract, instead of corpses, words and ideas can rivet our attention.
As in Godot, characters here are recycling experiences. The opening question about whether the priest is coming yet is responded to by a second blind man saying that the first woke him, and a third echoes that response. The sequence repeats a couple of times, although they step off their conversational treadmill soon after that point. Repetitions and brief exchanges pull our attention to the words themselves. So when the second man says, “I hear nothing coming,” and the third replies, “I don’t hear anything coming,” the slight difference becomes chilling, as “nothing” all but takes shape in its threatened approach.
A difficulty with The Blind, perhaps the primary one, is that its opaqueness is too clear, too obvious. Thin soup. Once we understand that we are being warned about, or accused of, being blind to the reality about us — and we get that before we enter and sit down — the variations on the theme can be tedious. Someone asks, “Does anyone know which way we came here? He explained it to us as we walked.” Someone responds, “I didn’t pay attention,” which is followed by “Did anyone listen to him?” and “We’ll have to listen to him in the future.”
Since a little of that goes a long way and we get a lot of that, help in turning our fidgeting into fascination, if that’s possible, lies with the director shaping and embellishing all of this. Much is done in that regard here, starting with the actors maintaining a quizzical rather than dolorous tone, which makes this all absurd rather than breast-beating. Half of the blind characters start out seated in the audience, dressed in white lab coats as though more curious than the others. They wear safety goggles, as though careful of protecting the sight they don’t have.
Scenic designer Michael McGarty has done well in setting a stark mood, suspending a huge white cube above them on the bench, as though the papers are fluttering down from an endlessly frustrating supply. Occasionally images are projected on the cube and on two screens that bracket it in the background: when someone exclaims, “The dikes are giving way,!” we see ice calving from the face of a glacier, and a flooded Holland expands into a warming globe. Sound and video design is by Mark Domino.