Painted in primary reds, yellows, greens, and blues, the dozen chairs that make up the majority of The Suit’s set are unrealistically simple, impossibly bright. They’re the sort of chairs a child would draw for stick figures in a two-dimensional house, shallow and cheery.
The chairs are fitting for the home of Philomen (Ivanno Jeremiah) and his wife, Matilda (Nonhlanhla Khewsa). The two tiptoe around the delicate illusion they’ve weaved together. Playing house, they eat from an invisible tray, bathe in an invisible shower, and turn an invisible faucet. They pretend not to notice that two chairs make their bed, that a bare clothing rack serves as a wall. Philomen narrates his life in Sophiatown as if reading from a storybook approaching its happily-ever-after, as if he’s beyond the trials of South Africa’s apartheid and marriage’s pitfalls.
Of course, Philomen’s oasis eventually crumbles. Reality nudges its way through his door in the form of a gray suit left by Matilda’s lover. After Philomen learns of his wife’s affair, he makes the suit her scarlet letter, telling her that she is to treat it as their “honored guest.” As the play unfolds, the suit develops a personality and almost a life. It seems horribly alive as it regards Matilda and Philomen from a seat by their bed.
Even with the ghost of Matilda’s betrayal looming in the background, The Suit never quite leaves the jubilance of its first scene. The characters are able to play and dance and sing in the midst of misery. When it seems as though Sophiatown is about to crack or burst, Peter Brook’s music ripples like laughter across the stage. It lends an easy fluidity to the play, even as it tiptoes through a minefield.
Though the cast is small and the set is simple, the world The Suit creates is vibrantly alive. While jumping into song or pulling unsuspecting spectators from the audience might feel contrived in another setting, it seems natural in the carefree whimsy of The Suit. There’s something intimate and endearing about the cast members as they chat with the audience or mime with their imaginary props.
As Matilda dances across the stage with her lover’s suit, you almost forget that her husband has made it her burden. The two take it on walks, serve it food, and put it to bed — at times almost forgetting its original owner.
Matilda and Philomen can almost pull off the false cheer of the chairs that make up their world. But ultimately, their smiles are a thin veil, a poor defense against the emptiness within and around them. When the music turns silent and the lights go off, their pain is laid bare.
Seattle Repertory Theatre
March 19 - April 6