This Pillowman is not related to The Sandman. The Sandman sends us off temporarily to the land of nod. The Pillowman sends people to the land of eternal rest. In one man’s opinion, both have our best interests in mind.
The Pillowman, a play by Martin McDonagh is the kind of theater that plumbs the macabre corners of our psyches, and manages to make us laugh as we cringe. The play finished its run at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown on Sunday. An epic 2 1/2 hours long, it loses its way from time to time but contains bursts of acting that are riveting.
A writer of stories that portray gruesome deaths that have a morbidly moral rationale is questioned about recent deaths in town that resemble the murders in his stories. During the course of the interrogation, we are left guessing about what is fact and what is fiction, both in the writer’s stories and in his life. Be prepared to feel whiplash as truth is interpreted differently by the play’s four actors.
Playwright McDonagh injects enough themes for several plays: artistic freedom, the power of love given and withheld, the real or imagined emotional scars we bear from our childhoods, the question of who is responsible when a fan acts out perversions written by a writer, and the need for the state to punish crime - no matter how guilty the accused may be.
We’re all complicated human beings, and the actors are up to showing just how we’re shaped by the accumulation of our experiences. The Pillowman, a mythic character invented in one of the writer’s stories, gently warns children whom he knows will meet with deep emotional or physical abuse in their future lives, and offers them a chance to avoid it by arranging their deaths in what appear to be random accidents.
Both the writer and his retarded brother have been abused by their parents; the police suspect one brother or the other committed the unsolved grisly murders in town. Like the daily headlines, conclusions often jump way ahead of facts; we’re continually off balance as we wonder whether what we’re hearing is true or is the public mask of each of the four characters.
“There are no happy endings in real life,” the writer says during his interrogation. The exception to his mantra comes from an unlikely source at the play’s conclusion and is satisfying, if not happy.
Steven Barkimer and Philip Patrone are terrific in their roles of two interrogating policemen. John Kuntz as the writer and Bradley Thoennes as his retarded brother often overact but when all four are firing on all cylinders the play packs a terrific emotional wallop.