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“The Approach” at Shakespeare & Company is cryptic tale about truth

Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Michelle Joyner in "The Approach"
Daniel Rader/Daniel Rader
Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Michelle Joyner in "The Approach"

“The Approach,” which opened the 2022 season of Shakespeare & Company is one of the most cryptic plays I can recall seeing. Nothing is direct about it. To understand it you must either look below the surface or between the lines.

The plot is the definition of simplicity. Set in Ireland, three women, somewhere in their 40s, meet two at a time at a table in a common space. Two of the women, Denise and Anna are estranged sisters; the third, Cora is a longtime close friend of the sisters. Her goal is to somehow reconcile them.

At this point the simplicity ends. The conversations appear conventional- like catching up with the lives of family and mutual friends - those sorts of things. Very quickly you realize the dominant theme of the chats is the men in their lives.

By the second scene, you also notice the contradictions of their memories. It doesn’t seem like outright lying nor even them seeing the same thing from a different perspective or even self-delusion. The conversations appear to be a way of trying to tell someone something without telling them anything.

Clearly, this demands intense concentration from members of the audience. It takes even more from the trio of actors who must find intent, sorrow and even despair from a script that does not directly address those emotions.

For instance, the sisters are estranged because each sister had a romance with Oliver who is now deceased. Anna believes her sister stole her lover. Denise claims her relationship with Oliver began after Oliver’s breakup with her sister.

What is odd is that during the course of the play each sister tells Cora, that despite all evidence to the contrary, neither really cared that much about Oliver. Yet the animosity between the sisters, who each consider them the wronged party, was unreconcilable.

There are several similar examples. Like each woman tells that her lover created for them a crossword puzzle with the answers to the clue being a private romantic moment. Did two women steal the gesture from another? Was the lover the same man? Did it happen at all?

Throughout the 80-minute work you search for clues of truth-telling. However, there is little truth in the play. Strangely, neither is there a lot of direct deception. Instead, it appears people are saying things they think they should say.

It’s like having a meeting with an old friend and enjoying it. As you say goodbye one of you says, “Let’s do this again real soon.” The other party agrees even though both of you know it’s unlikely to ever happen.

It’s not a coincidence this happens to be the end of one scene in a play that explores the ephemeral nature of truth.

My hope for the rest of 2022 is that I see another such thoughtful play with such brilliant acting and directing.

Nicole Andari as the peacemaker Cora is at times the glue of the relationships and at other times the tragic figure in the play. Michelle Joyner as Anna is ideal as the seemingly confident sister whose self-worth always needs reconfirming. As the aggressive, more dominant sister Denise, Elizabeth Aspenlieder signals both the independence of the woman and her need of family.

The production is co-directed by Mark Farrell and Tina Packer. They take a potentially incoherent play and turn it into an affecting and memorable night of theater. All this while the action on stage is never more than two women sitting at a table.

“The Approach” is a challenging play. Some will love it, others will not. Either way you will discuss it long after you leave the theater, and it will linger in your mind even longer.

“The Approach” continues at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. It continues through May 29. It will also be available by streaming. For tickets and information go to shakepeare.org or call 413-637-3353.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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