Society tells us that convicts must “pay their debt” before it will allow them to re-assimilate into the world. But anyone who has even the slightest working knowledge of the justice system knows that the struggle for acceptance goes on long, long after the debt is paid. Ex-cons often can’t get a break: they can’t find employment, can’t get credit, and end up barely subsisting in substandard housing on what little money they can scrounge. For far too many of them, mistakes (or even a single mistake) made when they were young end up haunting them for life. No wonder recidivism is a thing: society is simply not forgiving. It refuses to acknowledge that growth, remorse, and change are possible, and this self-fulfilling prophecy makes them impossible.
Chloë Moss’s This Wide Night introduces us to two women recently out of prison. There is no indication that they were incarcerated unfairly—in fact, it is clear that they committed the crimes for which they were convicted—but what they find on “the outside” is a world pretty much designed to get them to fail again.
In prison, the two women kept each other sane. Marie, the younger one (played by Aila Ayilam Peck), relied on the older Lorraine (Linda Reiter) to protect her, while Lorraine found that Marie was the only one who could make her laugh. Their symbiosis helped them weather their sentences. Now, when Lorraine has finally completed her sentence, she shows up at the shabby studio apartment Marie has rented hoping to renew the relationship that held them together for so long inside.
But the outside world has completely cowed Marie. No longer able to see humor at all, she spends her free time curled up in front of an old TV with no sound, trying to escape from the things she has found in her new life. Whenever someone knocks on the door, she freaks out, crouching behind her tiny chair to wait for the visitor to go away. It takes almost no time—and no dialogue—for Peck to show us Marie’s essential characteristics. Through her body language alone we see right away that this woman is not “free” in any realistic sense of the word.
Lorraine’s entrance (she refuses to go away and just keeps knocking until Marie lets her in) abruptly changes her erstwhile friend’s life. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar women: Marie’s quiet, inner-directed energy is a total contrast to that of the frenetic, loud, overly friendly Lorraine. Reiter’s portrayal, however, does not allow us to write her character off as simply obnoxious. There is a significant vulnerability in her as well as Marie: they attack the world (or don’t) differently, but as we watch them together we can see what they provided for each other in prison, and we can understand why Marie tolerates Lorraine’s staying in her tiny apartment instead of sending her off to the hostel to which she had been assigned.
Neither woman is emotionally equipped to handle living on her own. Marie drinks whatever she can afford to buy; Lorraine is addicted to prescription pills that dull her pain. And neither is fully honest with the other, having learned inside not to share too much…especially not if it will make you vulnerable. But both of them discover that they are able to find joy in small things. Lorraine reads a book about outer space, amazed at the wonders to be found there. Marie stares endlessly at the rain on her window, pretending that two random raindrops—one representing her and the other some figure from her past—are locked in a race to get to the sill at the bottom. Perhaps she sees her whole life as a race to the bottom, one in which she is all alone against whatever forces the world throws at her. (Lorraine stares out into the rain as well, but her fascination is a neighbor whose relentless metal detector-aided treasure-seeking doesn’t even pause for the storm.)
Moss’s script is less a cohesive play than a series of short vignettes, but thanks to these two gifted actors and director Georgette Verdin’s determination to help them find any source of humor they can mine in their characters’ otherwise bleak lives as they cling together to ward off their loneliness, we grow to care for these women. By proxy, we are seeing thousands of others like them who, having “paid their debts,” are cast aside by society as if their bills are still outstanding, as if nothing they could ever do would be able to wipe them clean.
This Wide Night is presented by Shattered Globe Theatre in association with Interrobang Theatre Project, and runs through Nov 13. Tickets may be purchased through either company’s website at Theater Wit’s box office.