Two travelers find themselves waiting together at an isolated way station, and as they speak to each other, they discover they have a lot in common. They are both eminent Victorians. They have both witnessed the extraordinary brutality of war and the deplorable conditions of colonial subjects of the British Empire. They are both extremely determined and unconventional people. And though one has lived as a forward-thinking man of medicine, reaching the rank of inspector general of Her Majesty’s Army Hospitals, they are both women.
In Whistling Psyche, British playwright Sebastian Barry imagines a meeting between two real historical figures: famed nurse of the Crimean War Florence Nightingale (Joanna Daniel) and Dr. James Barry (Kathleen McManus), a military surgeon who gained fame for performing the first Caesarean section in which both mother and child survived, and who, it was discovered after “his” death, was actually a woman. The two-person play premiered in London in 2004 with Claire Bloom and Kathryn Hunter in the leads, and is now receiving an independent production running at the Alliance Theatre’s third-floor Black Box space through February 23.
To say that the playwright has a way with words is a wild understatement. The writing is incredibly beautiful throughout, and there are fantastic descriptions of the two characters’ childhoods, their families, their experiences abroad, and the challenges they faced living as unorthodox people in a time of conformity. But the play is impossibly dense and inert. Whistling Psyche provides few of the pleasures we expect at the theater: story, interaction, drama, momentum, change. The show feels more like two blocky, heavy monologues that have been set side by side than a play in which two people meet, interact, and affect each other. At certain points, the two characters barely seem to be in the same room, much less in the same play.
Still, Daniel creates an interesting portrait of Nightingale. She’s a woman of almost superhuman sympathy for the sufferings and weaknesses of mankind, but she also has an unyielding sense of propriety and the way things ought to be. McManus’ Barry is the polar opposite: an isolated and cantankerous existentialist who prides herself on being uncouth, individualistic, even offensive.
The unfamiliarity of the figures, places and events referenced will be a challenge for many audience members. I occasionally found myself lost (perhaps it would all go down easier for an English audience or for history buffs). But there’s a larger, overarching problem here. Barry has written a beautiful, richly detailed, literary play that seems entirely out of place in a theater.