A Teacher Rekindles an Affair with a Restaurant Owner in “Skylight”; McCarter Theatre Delivers an Engaging Production of David Hare’s Drama
“SKYLIGHT:” Performances are underway for “Skylight.” Directed by Emily Mann, the play runs through June 2 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre. Kyra, a schoolteacher (Mahira Kakkar, left) attempts to rekindle her relationship with restaurant entrepreneur Tom (Greg Wood), but differences in lifestyle and ideology have caused them to grow apart. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
By Donald H. Sanborn III
McCarter Theatre is concluding its season with Skylight. In this literate play by David Hare, schoolteacher Kyra Hollis unexpectedly is visited by her former lover, restaurant entrepreneur Tom Sergeant, and by Tom’s teenage son Edward. Tom and Kyra attempt to reignite their relationship, but find that differences in their ideologies and lifestyle choices may make them incompatible. This engaging production is directed by Emily Mann, McCarter’s artistic director.
Skylight premiered in the West End in 1995, and opened on Broadway the following year. A 2014 West End revival transferred to Broadway, winning the 2015 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
At the end of a winter day, Kyra, who is in her early 30s, arrives home at her flat in London, and empties a shopping bag containing ingredients for a spaghetti dinner. She is surprised to see the 18-year-old Edward, an intense young man who is taking a year off between high school and college, standing in her doorway. Although the encounter is awkward, it is clear that Kyra and Edward know each other well. She invites him in and turns on a rather ineffective electric heater.
Edward reveals that his mother, Alice, recently has died of cancer. He is frustrated by ways in which Tom’s grief has changed him; this has caused an argument between the two, which has led to Edward moving out and staying with a friend.
Angrily, Edward asks why Kyra abandoned his family after spending several years with them; she curtly replies that he probably can guess the reason. Before he leaves he asks what Kyra misses most from her time with the Sergeants; she replies, “a good breakfast.”
Later that same evening, Kyra receives another visitor: Tom, who is in his 50s.
Kyra invites him to remove his coat; he refuses because of the cold temperature, and offers to pay for central heating to be installed in the flat. Unwilling to be indebted to him, Kyra declines. She also rejects his offer to buy her a “proper” meal, after he derides the home-cooked spaghetti dinner she is cooking.
Tom continually contrasts his life with Kyra’s, telling her that she could have advanced in the world had she accepted shares in his hotel and restaurant business. Kyra, who is determined to continue helping her underprivileged students, is disinterested in changing any aspect of her life. Tom also comments on the way bankers are portrayed in the news, which Kyra refuses to watch, preferring to read novels.
We learn about Kyra’s history with the Seargents, which started when she was a waitress in a restaurant owned by Tom and Alice. We discover that Tom and Kyra had an affair, which the latter abruptly ended after Alice discovered it because of Tom’s carelessness. In the course of the evening they attempt to resume the relationship, though the conflicts between them pose challenges to it.
Greg Wood, who may be most familiar to Princeton audiences as Scrooge in McCarter’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, plays Tom. He punctuates his smooth line delivery with sweeping gestures. Tom often gazes intently at Kyra, letting his eyes sear her like lasers. Wood almost steals the show by putting his entire body into his charismatic performance.
However, Mahira Kakkar does not allow Wood to steal the show, because she keeps us eager to see how Kyra will respond to Tom’s behavior. Tom tends to put all of his cards on the table, whereas Kyra keeps hers close to her chest until strategic moments.
Where Wood is demonstrative in his use of body language, Kakkar is reserved. Through facial expressions, most notably deliberate blinks of her eyes, she lets us know that Kyra is taking in every word — and when she offers a response, it will be powerful.
“The intertwining of character and history, the history of Kyra and Tom’s relationship, and then the moments of political disagreement and values disagreement — all of this somehow unfolds totally truthfully,” Mann tells Anna Morton, McCarter’s literary manager. “My job is: how am I going to make the emotion explode between the two actors?”
Explosions of emotion characterize the dynamic between Tom and Kyra. Throughout the play, their relationship is by varying degrees amicable and contentious, but a clear arc shapes it. In each act, Mann lets the tension boil with gradual but increasing intensity until one character suddenly lashes out at another.
Mann’s staging highlights Tom’s restlessness and Kyra’s resolve. Throughout much of the play, particularly the first act, Tom paces back and forth, using the length of the stage. Kyra, rather like an anchor, tends to stay near the stove. It is not until the beginning of the second act, when she sits in a chair with Tom, that we see her occupy a different area of the flat for any noticeable length of time. Nevertheless, when Kyra does move about the flat, she does so purposefully, and often quickly.
As Edward, Zane Pais makes clear that although the character is frustrated with his father, Edward has absorbed much of his personality and mannerisms. Pais matches Wood’s intent gaze and passionate line delivery.
Kyra’s somewhat messy flat, with uneven Venetian blinds and dirty gray walls, has the appearance of being in a basement, although it is not. Nevertheless it looks cozy, especially when she turns on a lamp. Beowulf Boritt’s set is elaborate down to a working stove and sink; audience members will smell food cooking. Kyra makes real pasta sauce, and prepares hot water for pasta and tea. Like the tensions between Kyra and Tom, the water boils. This high level of detail illustrates the extent to which Kyra has settled into the space, and is committed to staying in it — and her job.
Like Tom’s personality, his outfit is extravagant and layered. Costume designer Montana Levi Blanco has given him a velvet jacket that covers an impeccably tailored shirt and sweater. Kyra, who tends to wear loose-fitting shirts, is given a coat that is black — as is Edward’s leather jacket, which suggests a connection between the two younger characters.
Although Hare’s crisp dialogue drives the play, Mann ensures that moments of silent action prevent it from becoming relentless. The mood for this thoughtful show is set by sound designer Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s contemplative incidental music, which is heard at the beginning and interspersed in between scenes.
The lighting by Jason Lyons is integral in creating some attractive and symbolic stage pictures, particularly at the end. There is an especially beautiful tableau in which we see light contrast with falling snow.
It is unsurprising that Skylight has found new audiences in the past decade, as its themes are quite timely. Of particular relevance are the class conflicts; the concept of people from opposing backgrounds who perceive the other to be looking down on their choices; and the need to be aware of the world outside of one’s own lifestyle.
Hare’s script is successful because it explores numerous issues in a way that is completely character-driven. He lets the personality types clash with each other, and the actors compellingly bring these characters to life.
Skylight will play at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through June 2. For tickets, show times, and further information call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org