Theatre Review: Available Light’s Thom Pain is a Roller Coast Ride Through a Troubled Mind
Will Eno’s one of the signature voices of the new American theatre. His 2004 one man show, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), is a filleting of the funny-sad mind of the contemporary American man. A masterful production by Available Light, and director Matt Slaybaugh, with a righteous performance by Jordan Fehr at its heart, opened this past weekend at Franklinton gallery The Vanderelli Room.
The eponymous character addresses the audience directly, slyly winking at his (not quite identical) famous name before shattering any easy allusions to the author of The Age of Reason with a hilarious, rambling, deeply sad monologue that’s closer to the way human beings think and the way we try to present ourselves to others than anything I’ve ever heard on a stage: what we show off, what we try to keep bottled up, and how much of who we really are slips out unbidden. Fehr’s Pain leaps, or slips, or tumbles, “speaking to the obviously flawed among us,” between different strands of memory filled with almost surreal details, and shifting his rhythm up or down with each tale even layering cadences over each other as they start to bleed together. The story of “the boy” who he assiduously avoids saying is himself (but gives it away with darting eyes and tensing shoulders), bleeding in filthy water and getting stung by bees again and again, is told with a crescendo-ing fervor like a religious absolution. The tale of dating a woman – a real, individual woman; a composite of a particular type of woman he was drawn to for a period of his life? – is told with the fragile bravado of dirty talk; with practiced, bratty, indifference; and with the cough-syrup-high fuzzed out rhythm of walking right into the shadow of disappointment but not knowing another approach. And he does all of this getting big, rich, nervous laughs.
Fehr’s perfectly wound performance is hypnotic throughout. His use of acidic punctuation, words like “Thanks,” part sarcasm and part a chance to give the speaker a chance to take a breath more than actually thanking the audience for their indulgence, are a jolt up the spine as they remind us all how we use those words without thinking. The symbiosis he achieves with Slaybaugh’s direction, treating the stage like a cage with a springboard in it, is remarkable, most of all when he tries to lean back on mediated ways of dealing with a crowd, heckling a man for leaving, bringing up a raffle only to say, “Maybe we all won. Or maybe we all lost.” There’s a tremendously moving look at the frequent impotence of humor to really defuse tension or calm us and how much discipline and perfection telling a joke demands.
The shocking stillness that seems to come out of nowhere, to bubble up between the cracks of this peripatetic, surging torrent of words and choked-down memories is key to Thom Pain. When Fehr’s very physical performance stops moving and turns on a dime, as when he says, “I’m speaking softly again. Because I’m trying to be heard,” he draws the listener forward in their seat the same way a seducer draws you closer by lowering their voice. This riff on disappointment and the desperate need to keep trying, comes to a glorious head with his almost whispered advice to those of us assembled in that gallery, “Be stable, be stable, be stable.”
This is a hilarious, grab-you-by-the-throat version of the human brain trying to eat itself, distilled to something so potent you can’t see the flame but its heat will blister you. A call to arms and a shot across the bow to art and theatre in Columbus in 2016.
Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) runs February 18-20 with shows at 8:00pm. For tickets and more info, visit http://avltheatre.com/