In Boca Stage’s superb production of Alessandro Camon’s drama “Time Alone,” one set abuts another. In the more cramped of the two, grey-clad prison inmate Gabriel Wayland (Rio Chavarro) shares his story of incarceration, from growing up in the ‘hood and hastily initiating a gang shooting at 17 to being tried as an adult, sentenced to 50 years to life, and surviving the daily agony and disorientation of solitary confinement.
In the adjoining space, the kitchen of Anna Jackson (Karen Stephens) is modest and tidy, a functional sanctuary perhaps, its constant care the one thing over which the homeowner has control. In her own mournful biography, she reveals meeting, and then losing, her loving husband. Her widowhood will soon be compounded when their only child, a police offer, loses his life in the line of duty.
Camon’s play is scripted in a dueling-monologues format: We hear from Gabriel for a while, then spend some time with Anna, then back to Gabriel, and so forth. As we take in their tragic scenarios, our minds cast about for a connection between these seemingly disparate signifiers of the opposite sides of policing and justice in contemporary America. For nearly the entire 90-minute, intermissionless production, we gradually accept that there may be no direct link between these tortured souls. But when this association finally arrives, unexpectedly, director Genie Croft and her marvelous twosome discover new depths of shared compassion, empathy and forgiveness.
“Time Alone” ranks among Boca Stage’s best productions in years, as every element is first-rate. Chavarro’s Gabriel is like a caged bird with its wings clipped. He paces his cell with the unsettled agitation of someone’s who is never again going to experience comfort. When he relays the backstory of how he wound up being bars, you can feel Chavarro reliving the trauma anew. The pain is palpable: It seems to reside in the actor’s bones.
Stephens presents a master class in the architecture of grief—a slow-burning blueprint of its nooks and crannies, where she prefers to reside. She is the picture of restraint. Her lip quivers when detailing her son’s death, but she doesn’t break—which makes the moment when her dam finally does give way, in the ineffably moving final moments of “Time Alone,” all the more resonant. Moreover, even in the wallows of her despair, Stephens somehow taps into Anna’s sense of humor, evidence that, for all her considerations of suicide, this is someone whose joy for life still exists, albeit deeply buried.
Ardean Landhuis’ scenic design offers plausible visions for the confines of both characters; the prison cell, in particular, has the illusion of unbreakable concrete, and is rich with telling details, like the soil stain on the pillow of Gabriel’s cot. Sound designer David Hart’s copious audio drops contribute stark punctuation—as in the form of harrowing gunshots—as well as the hazy echoes of each characters’ more carefree moments in life, which arrive and dissipate like the half-remembered daydreams they are.
Camon’s script, however, is far from perfect. Though thoroughly researched in the avenues of grief and prison life, Camon’s play can be overly writerly, most present in his belabored references to time; his characters leave no temporal idiom unspoken. Moreover, each character spends far too much time lecturing the audience from veritable soapboxes. We can grasp the inhumanity of the carceral system and the fake pieties of Anna’s liberal cohort without Camon spelling them out for us. His play is much more powerful when it sticks to these characters’ personal narratives rather than positioning them as mouthpieces for points of view.
This production is all the more successful, then, for the ways in which it transcends the source material’s weaknesses while elevating its strengths. I haven’t spoken enough about Genie Croft’s direction, the most important ingredient despite and because of its invisibility. The pacing needs to act, at the risk of abusing one of the show’s time metaphors, like clockwork. And through Croft’s deft handling of this vital aspect, we can feel the characters growing subliminally closer to each other, as each of their monologues becomes increasingly shorter by tiny gradations until, before we know it, they are essentially speaking to other—the walls between their ages, their stations in life, and the physical sets all but disappearing.
This must be Camon’s most impactful point. As new-agey as it sounds, there is more that connects us than divides us, and if these two can find a common, even loving ground, there’s hope for all of us.
“Time Alone” runs through Jan. 22 at Boca Stage, 333 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $45-$50. Call 561/300-0152 or visit bocastage.net.