An Australian woman and a French woman are boarding together in New York City in the middle of World War II. Both have their gaze turned outwards; one towards hope for a new world on the horizon, the other towards the insufferable present across the Atlantic. Neither of them entirely achieves what they are searching for.
Paul Gilchrist’s 2010 script, inspired by the activist Simone Weil, explores the conceptualisation of life as theatre, particularly musical theatre, full of sunshine and gaiety and life as war full of pain and suffering. It asks which of these philosophies is true and watches them spar against each other as manifest in the characters of Elaine (Elle Harris) and Simone (Chloe Schwank). While the extended metaphors at times feel forced and repetitive, Gilchrist hones in on a concern for the place of imagination: what is the difference between hopeful dreaming and distracting lies?
It doesn’t seem enough to rely on reality when the fantasy atmosphere of the city intrudes on Elaine, making her imagine romances and reincarnations that aren’t there. Lighting design from Artie Hotchkies turns an ordinary apartment into dreamscapes of pink and blue, even pulling Elaine forward through time into the new world she hoped for after the war was finally over.
Simone is a severe and serious thinker with great interest in understanding how to relieve others’ suffering. She is desperate to make herself useful for the Europeans struggling through the war but she is routinely denied permission to leave New York City because of her unsubstantial plans. In the meantime she is trapped in her apartment with Elaine, another type of idealist who wants the city to grant her a magical life of happiness. It’s not long before she discovers her movie romance with Tom (Matthew Abotomey) is as manufactured as the musicals she loves so much.
Harris and Schwank have a stubborn dynamic full of hypothetical scenarios that prevent them from truly connecting. At the same time, each performs with an upright respect and dignity that gives their positions weight and believability. Cormac Costello as a representative of the British consulate captures the spirit of the play’s philosophy with a witty and wily characterisation. His wordy confrontations with both Simone and Elaine provided amusement and a grander contextualising perspective for the state of the world in 1942, as well as the all-important opinion of the Empire.
Who’s to say whether optimism or pessimism is the nobler philosophy? Like many such questions, the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle with equal measures of cynicism and hope to combat the trying nature of humans.
Life is Impossible is running at the Old 505 from February 18th – 23rd