For their inaugural production, socially conscious Clock Tower Theatre chose a contemporary Canadian play limited neither by its time nor its place. Rather, The Harrowing is one of those no-frills political thrillers that could just as easily be about Jesus as about Maziar Bahari or a dystopian hero of the future. Designer/AD Justin Büyüközer embraces that ambiguity with vaguely modern costumes that hint at the Middle East if you know a lot about epaulets (all his work here is excruciatingly detailed but it may take repeat viewings to notice) and director Jeffrey Roel keeps his actors focused on the universality of their characters rather than the specificity of their circumstances. It’s a strong company introduction and a smart choice of text but it seems as though, with certain key choices, they may have zigged when zagging was the stronger route.
The program notes suggest that the directors were aiming to emphasize the dark comedy elements of Scott Douglas’ text. While they don’t quite accomplish their goal in this respect, I don’t necessarily think the production suffers all that much for its lack of comedy (though I appreciate the choice in concept- a little laughter always makes the tears hurt more). The charisma and emotional stakes Max Tepper brings to political prisoner Yeshu are more than enough to hold the audience’s investment while Eric Lehmann’s broad characterization of conflicted guard Romanus disengaged me a little more with every attempt at comedy. I found Lehmann’s accent distracting in a theatrical world thematically dependent on cultural ambiguity but was far more thrown by his energy and large character choices as contrasted with Tepper’s understated performance. Some incompatibility is a strong choice for the almost perfect foils but Lehmann and Tepper don’t even seem to be in the same production. It’s possible, with the elements of comedy that come through with his broad performance, that Lehmann’s interpretation is closer to Roel’s tonal intentions, but Tepper’s darkly nuanced interpretation is, at least in my view, far more compelling. The heart-wrenching calm of his moments of submission, the desperate glimmers of his beaten down quest for righteousness, the helpless anger- Tepper folds a lot into a quiet performance that feels upsettingly real.
What I struggle with is listening to the words of Douglas’ text and knowing that, if Lehmann’s Romanus lived in the same world as Tepper’s Yeshu, I could have found equal humanity and pathos in both men. If Romanus felt as human as Yeshu, The Harrowing could be an unendingly morally complex piece that haunts its audience long after leaving the theatre. This version only takes you halfway there. But halfway isn’t half bad for a company just starting to make their mark.