Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 16
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
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(Photo by Cie Stroud)

ON TRENTON STAGE: Obie Award winner Heidi Schreck, left, and Polly Lee, seen at McCarter Theatre in “Candida,” are currently co-starring in the world premiere of “Instructions for Breathing” by Caridad Svich at Trenton’s Passage Theatre, continuing through May 10. A drama about loss and faith, the play deals with the sudden and tragic loss of a child by an act of casual neglect, and the attempts at healing by the family and community. Directed by Daniella Topol, the cast also includes Bryan Close, Frank Harts, Kate Hopkins, and Gerardo Rodriguez.

A Child’s Disappearance Triggers Shock, Pain, Finally Healing, in World Premiere of “Instructions for Breathing” at Mill Hill

Donald Gilpin

A suburban home, an office, and various other locales in the life of Jon and Sara are only the literal settings of Instructions for Breathing, a poetic, poignant world premiere drama by Caridad Svich, currently at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. More importantly, this play is set in a dream world — a world of the mind’s creation, beautifully evoked through a child’s offstage voice, a suggestively surrealistic set, and a room “overlooking the ocean” on stage left — a place for meditation, spiritual relief and healing.

Instructions for Breathing, produced by Passage Theatre, is a story of devastating loss, its effects and the struggle towards recovery. Shifting back and forth between dream and reality, the drama takes its main characters, Jon (Bryan Close) and Sara (Heidi Schreck), along with its audience, from the shock and despair at the loss of their young daughter through the shattering of their marriage, their jobs and their entire lives.

Director Daniella Topol has assembled an adept, thoroughly professional ensemble of six and a strong production crew. She has directed with assurance, focus, and a brisk pace that delivers these “instructions” — on breathing and on life — in 90 minutes without intermission. The characters and their interactions are convincing and interesting. The action, moving seamlessly through numerous scenes in the lives of Jon and Sara, is swift and engaging.

Instructions for Breathing is disturbingly familiar in its realistic and its surrealistic manifestations. Jon and Sara can find no answer to their questions about their daughter Sonya’s disappearance. They are stunned at first. They feel guilty for having briefly left Sonya alone in their suburban home. They imagine the reproach of their neighbors. “Was I a good mother?” an anguished Sara wonders. At first they are hopeful. “We’ll find her,” Jon promises. “They found a sock,” Sara reports — but it turns out not to be Sonya’s.

Passage Theatre’s world premiere production of Caridad Svich’s “Instructions for Breathing” runs through May 10 at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton. For information call (609) 392-0766 or visit

Often together, but always profoundly alone in their grief, Jon and Sara struggle to live with the loss and pain. Jon becomes angry, combative at work. He questions a colleague (Frank Harts) who left his own daughter alone in the local park. He fights with another friend (Gerardo Rodriguez), and soon Jon is jobless, spending the day driving, searching for miles and miles around for his lost daughter. He talks to himself. He talks to his daughter in his mind.

Sara turns more inward, spends her hours with memories of Sonya and with Sonya’s teddy bear, her finger paintings, her little books, her report cards. An awkward visit from a neighbor (Polly Lee) who attempts to sympathize provides no solace. Sara eventually quits her job, starts going to church — “It’s quiet, safe … I need to believe or else I won’t breathe.”

They both regret past moments when they could have appreciated Sonya more lovingly, more fully. “We spend half our lives ignoring,” Jon laments.

The grieving process for Jon and Sara is sad — even difficult to watch at times, but there is a certain beauty, almost like a dance of healing, as they work out, individually and together, their quest for wholeness. It is Sara whose psychological-spiritual-religious journey takes her to the dream room “overlooking the ocean” on stage left, where she claims to sometimes see Sonya. The room is a sanctuary, a place beyond time, where Sara spends many hours sitting at a table with a hand raised in supplication.

After two years, Jon and Sara start a journey to Gibraltar, the Pyrenees, one exotic place after another, with no particularly itinerary (“Close your eyes, open the atlas and see where you land.”). They travel for years, until Sara decides, “We can’t just keep floating. I want to have a baby. I need to have a baby.”

Sara returns to their home in the suburbs, and the final scene is a chance, mother-daughter encounter on the beach — or is it in the realm of dream? — between Sara and a mysterious, unnamed girl (Kate Hopkins) who ran away from her parents’ home many years earlier and who may or may not be the now-adolescent Sonya.

Ms. Hopkins’ appearance — in brown hooded sweatshirt, braids, and bare feet — and her outspoken voice in the closing scene provide a quietly striking climax to the action. Mr. Harts and Mr. Rodriguez offer distinct, interesting, convincing characterizations, along with a welcome injection of humor and a grounding in reality — the reality of the world of men, drinking beer and telling stories, the reality of the workplace, the reality of parents and children. Ms. Lee’s well-meaning, intrusive neighbor is an effective foil to Sara and a strong complement to the ensemble.

As the core of the production Ms. Schreck and Mr. Close are consistently excellent — not always likable or sympathetic, sometimes painful to watch, but always so credibly human and committed to their suffering characters.

Jeffrey Van Velsor’s minimal set, with lighting by Charles S. Reece, creates beautifully and efficiently this world of reality and dream. Five white blocks transform into chairs, tables, and desks, as necessary. A large mysteriously evocative, mostly blue rectangle adorns the back wall, doubling as window and art work, and a smaller blue rectangle graces the wall of the dream room on stage left.

An award-winning playwright, born in Philadelphia to Cuban mother and an Argentine father with Croatian ancestry, the prolific Ms. Svich, with more than 40 plays to her credit produced throughout the United States and in Europe, currently has a play The House of Spirits (La casa de los espiritus) based on Isabel Allende’s best-selling novel, at Repertorio Espanol in New York, and another play Wreckage opening next month at the Crowded Fire Theatre Company in San Francisco.

As her character Sara says in the final scene, “Words are important. Sometimes they’re all we have.” The poetic words and powerful images of Caridad Svich prove to be formidable human resources in the haunted world of Instructions for Breathing.

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