It’s all about the verbs, present and veiled past, as lies collide in ‘The Girl in the Yellow Dress’
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Early on in Craig Higginson’s play “The Girl in the Yellow Dress,” a young woman who teaches English in Paris blurts out a famously ironic observation about language: that its chief purpose is not to communicate but to conceal the truth.
Celia, the teacher, offers the comment – a retort, actually – with the wan inflection of one who has given up on the concept of truth, starting no doubt with its connection to her own life. It’s her instinctive response when her new private student, a young Congolese-French man called Pierre, says he wants to learn English so he can, well, communicate.
Thus begins a delicate dance and an evolving relationship played out with subtlety and carefully built intensity in Next Theatre’s production with Carrie A. Coon as the English teacher and Austin Talley as Pierre. The two actors make for credible jousting between a rigid, lonely white woman of privileged English background and a black man from Africa who describes atrocities beyond her powers of imagination.
South African playwright Craig Higginson is the dramaturg at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” premiered in South Africa in 2010, then toured the United Kingdom. More than a charged collision between two cultures, “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” is a profoundly human, headlong clash between a woman who has reduced language to a fortification of analytical beams and girders and a man who effectively lays siege to that stronghold.
They both exploit language to their own ends; in other words, he lies and she lies – all in the name of communication and linguistic precision.
Carrie A. Coon makes a touchingly sad schoolmarm, a military drill instructor of a teacher who bites off her verb declensions like marching cadences, and woe to the cadet who doesn’t keep pace. But unlike the DI who tells his grunt, “Look into my eye,” Coon’s evasive Celia wants no part of a direct gaze. Though she stands to learn a good deal about herself, this vulnerable teacher is reluctant to move beyond present conditional to simple past. Verbs in unvarnished tenses could lead one to reveal things that must not be acknowledged.
Austin Talley’s Pierre, a fast learner on a subversive mission, plays the teacher’s game of evasion only too well. Pierre arrives all deference and wonder, overjoyed that the English woman has agreed – however reluctantly – to take him on. Progressively, he works his way through the anomalies of English to the ultimate conjugation. That’s the trouble with perfectly clear speech. When all’s said and done, you’re left with the naked truth, or perhaps a whole new set of lies.
Because speech is central to all this, it matters that Coon’s well-schooled English lady really does rattle off her verb forms with crisp, mathematical efficiency. It’s less important that Talley’s French accent amounts to little more than saying “zee” for “the,” though it’s downright bizarre that when whole French phrases are spoken, her accent is more faithful than his. Still, the ultimate battle line is spelled out in English and the teacher-student perspective on that is quite believable.
As an inherently talky play with a single set, the teacher’s apartment, “The Girl in the Yellow Dress” requires an aura of coiled energy to sustain its momentum. Director Joanie Schultz not only keeps the play in motion but also ratchets up the tension as the final scenes release a tumbling sequence of revelations. The stark, book-lined apartment designed by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod could just as well be a psychiatrist’s office.
Then again, what we have here are two neurotic people acting out through the veil of language, with verbs connecting them as subject and object. The question is, which is which?
- More on playwright Craig Higginson: Go to the author’s webpage
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com