THEATER | “Sleep Deprivation Chamber” at Penumbra: A mournful meditation

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Prior to Sleep Deprivation Chamber at Penumbra Theatre, the last play my friend Carl Atiya Swanson appeared in was April’s The Awakening, which I called “the perfect show for this capricious, long-awaited spring.” Sleep Deprivation Chamber, it happens, is also seasonally appropriate: a dark, chilly drama shot through with a rueful restlessness.

The play was written by Adrienne Kennedy and her son Adam P. Kennedy, based on a 1991 incident in which, according to the Penumbra, Adam Kennedy “was pulled over by the police in his father’s driveway in Arlington, Virginia. What began as a routine traffic stop turned into a nightmare of police brutality as Adam was beaten by a policeman and then charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.” The charged language of the press release is true to the spirit of the play, which is no Rashomon—it’s made clear throughout that Teddy (Lucas Bellamy), a black man, was the victim of a racially-motivated assault at the hands of the white cop. (Particularly given the characters’ frequently-mentioned ties to elite universities, the 1996 play resonates eerily with the infamous 2009 incident in which black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested by a white police officer for disorderly conduct after Gates climbed through the window of his own house.)

sleep deprivation chamber, presented at penumbra theatre through october 11. for tickets ($38) and information, see penumbratheatre.org

In broad strokes, the play unfolds along a conventional trajectory: we hear Teddy and his father (Terry Bellamy) give anguished depositions to unfeeling lawyers, then the play escalates into a courtroom drama in which the offending officer (Swanson) is cross-examined by attorneys representing the prosecution (Katherine Kupiecki) and the defense (Stephen Cartmell). The judge (Heidi Bakke) delivers a verdict, and the play ends. At intervals throughout, we hear from Teddy’s mother Suzanne (Indira Addington), a playwright like Adrienne Kennedy, who appeals to the authorities and the public on her son’s behalf, and who puts the case in the context of the family’s history specifically and African-American history generally.

Director Robbie McCauley skillfully steers the cast through a shifting mosaic of scenes and perspectives, but unlike The Scottsboro Boys, Sleep Deprivation Chamber is about its story rather than about its story’s telling. The play represents actual events as told by the aggrieved family at the heart of those events, and the trial unfolds in a way that it wouldn’t unfold in a play written from scratch with the intention of gripping audiences in a tightly-woven plot. There’s some suspense, but this is not a thriller—it’s a requiem for lost innocence, for blackened eyes and bruised dreams.

What’s required of actors here is precision and clarity rather than layered ambiguity, and by and large they deliver that. Terry Bellamy is pitch-perfect as a frustrated, loving father, and Cartmell’s slick rhetorical force as Teddy’s lawyer is one of the production’s biggest surprises—onstage and onscreen, the falsely accused are almost always represented by lazy drunkards, while it’s the Claus von Bülows of the world who get the Alan Dershowitzes. Lucas Bellamy comes across as hurt, defeated, and distant: though the entire show is premised on Teddy having been handled brutally by life (as personified by racist cops), Bellamy never asks for our sympathy.

Seitu Kenneth Jones’s multi-level set makes good use of the Penumbra’s semi-thrust stage, and Martin Gwinup’s video projections and sound add a welcome layer to the production, representing or echoing events remembered or referenced by the characters.

As I said to Carl after Thursday night’s show, it seems to me that Sleep Deprivation Chamber becomes more interesting when you realize it’s not going to be “interesting.” It’s an act of witness, and it’s best approached not as a story but as a meditation, a cry of anger and frustration by an American family who, much as they might like to, can’t put the past behind them. Can any of us? Should we? The answer, Sleep Deprivation Chamber argues, is a decisive no.