Sometimes a playwright makes a surprisingly substantial leap forward. Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike, which played at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in 2014, was a limited and rather silly play where Greta Gerwig did a British accent and was torn between a stodgy husband and an exciting lover for two and a half chatty hours, which were periodically broken up by back projections showing us images of Gerwig riding a painfully symbolic bicycle. Both husband and lover were portrayed stereotypically, so that any point Skinner wanted to make about women and men got lost. But in The Ruins of Civilization, her new play for Manhattan Theatre Club, Skinner has honed and edited her material for maximum impact and gone deeper into her characters, and the result is compelling.
The Ruins of Civilization is set in Britain sometime in the future. Silver (Tim Daly) is a writer who has been working on a novel for nine years, and he treats his charming wife Dolores (Rachael Holmes) more like a father than a husband. They live in a well-appointed apartment, but it is made clear to us that the outside world has deteriorated badly, with typhoons and natural disasters sweeping away many inhabitants of other countries. Women in Britain are not allowed to have children, and Dolores has nothing to do all day. Feeling guilty and needing a project, Dolores insists on taking in a refugee named Mara (Roxanna Hope), a former lawyer who has been reduced to doing massages with happy endings.
Though The Ruins of Civilization takes place in the future, Skinner is obviously touching on the current refugee crisis in Europe, and she sets up a believable and moving alliance between Dolores and Mara, very different women who bond over Mara’s unexpected pregnancy, the result of a rape by one of her clients. The main problem with The Village Bike was that the two male characters were one-dimensional, but Skinner’s portrayal of Silver is far more believable and well rounded here. Daly makes Silver a highly attractive figure at first, but then he gradually reveals what a complacent tyrant of a man his character is, lording it over Dolores and Mara as an unanswerable figure of patriarchal authority.
The relationship between Silver and his wife Dolores in The Ruins of Civilization is modeled along the lines of Torvald and Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but without children or hope of children or hope of anything else. Their interplay is written and acted skillfully, but it is Hope’s Mara who is the soulful center of this play. Still, watchful, her steady eyes glimmering with skepticism and grief, Hope builds an impressive portrait of a woman who has lost everything and who cannot allow herself to really trust anyone.
Skinner dramatizes Mara’s pain and separation from life and her clashes with Silver’s increasingly infuriating sense of old-school British morality and privilege, and this comes to a head in a highly satisfying confrontation scene where Mara attempts to stand up for herself and tries to get her male benefactor to take his head out of the sand. The Ruins of a Civilization winds up being a tight and focused piece of work that explores several pressing issues in a forceful and provocative way.
Photo by Joan Marcus