Can it really be 20 years since the events of 9/11, a day so etched in our memories that it feels like yesterday?
Perhaps by now Audrey Batten’s well-earned anger and bitterness have subsided, but in Bruce Graham’s world premiere play, The Duration — which initially takes place mere days after the destruction of the Twin Towers — her grief has the highly rational history professor acting erratically.
Her son Eddie, the twin of her daughter Emma, worked in and died in the World Trade Center on that infamous day, within months of the death of Audrey’s husband, who was killed in a car crash with a drunk driver. If she believed in God — which she does not — it would be enough to turn her into an atheist.
What it has done is cause her to abruptly leave her university job and drive from New York to a remote mountain cabin in Pennsylvania. There she festers, immersing herself in Fox News and the National Review, much to the alarm and concern of Emma. Dutifully, though not without her own outbursts of anger, Emma makes periodic treks to visit her mother, trying to bring her back to her senses and to her home. Between such visits, Emma deals with her loss by leading a grief support group that bristles with the xenophobia that 9/11 so engendered.
There have, of course, been many plays and movies about the aftermath of 9/11, but few that have been able to focus in on such an intimate, personal story without losing the political perspective. And while playwright Graham does not flinch from the pain this mother and daughter are enduring, he also manages to leaven the gloom with some humor. Audrey is undeniably smart, and she knows how to keep the world at bay with her mordant, smart-alecky remarks.
Graham may be writing about 2001, but from the viewpoint of 2022. In one of Audrey’s more pointed and prescient lines, she muses, “Y’know what? 20, 30 years from now people are still going to be angry and the bastards are going to use it.” It is hard to miss the unspoken parallels between the carnage of 9/11 and the massive human toll of COVID-19.
The Duration is at its best in the abrasive sequences between Audrey and Emma, but its aperture widens midway through the compact, 90-minute intermissionless evening with the injection of a third character — Audrey’s department head boss and priest, Father Douglas Kelly. He, too, journeys to Audrey’s cabin, hoping to gain a commitment from her about her return to work. And as they inevitably do, they engage in a verbal tug-of-war over faith and her lack of it.
As Audrey, Elizabeth Dimon is pitch-perfect in her snarky defense mechanisms, burying herself in stacks of newspapers, changing topics of her research from FDR to 9/11. She projects the character’s hard shell, but also lets us see the hurt it is trying to hide. Uncharacteristically, she buys a gun and is stunned by the power it affords her.
In her Dramaworks debut, Caitlin Duffy manages to hold the stage against Dimon, which is no easy feat. Her Emma tries to be the voice of reason in contrast to her mother’s meltdown, but she cannot prevent her anger from flaring up. And making a welcome return to PBD is John Leonard Thompson as Father Doug, a caring colleague of Audrey’s though not her intellectual equal, someone she handily pushes away.
The reliable J. Barry Lewis stages The Duration with an invisible touch, effectively orchestrating his capable three-member cast. The production is aided considerably by the company’s veteran team of designers — a persuasive cabin interior and exterior by Michael Amico, expertly lit by Kirk Bookman, with an understated, apt wardrobe by Brian O’Keefe.
Graham has written a deceptively complex play, which works its way under the audience’s skin with cerebral and emotional impact. It is bound to receive subsequent productions, but few are likely to be as effective as this one at Dramaworks.
THE DURATION, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, March 6. $79. Call 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.