There are at least two provocative ideas behind Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, now showing in a superb, if lengthy, production at Jobsite Theater. The first suggests that life and child abuse are virtually synonymous. Again and again, McDonagh tells us stories about the torture or maiming or killing of children — so many that it seems he's defining a universal experience.
Katurian, the "hero" of The Pillowman, grew up listening to his parents assaulting his brother Michal. He's interrogated by a cop who was repeatedly raped by his own father. And he writes stories about a boy disfigured by a strange old man; a girl forced to swallow pieces of apple spiked with razor blades; and another girl whose foster parents, tired of hearing her compare herself to Jesus, scourge her, crucify her and bury her half-alive.
The abuse of children is so omnipresent in McDonagh/Katurian's mind, he imagines a hero called the Pillowman, who offers to help children commit suicide before their life of misery can fully begin. To grow up in this world is, according to this worldview, to face horror, wretchedness, real or metaphorical mutilation. And things don't get much better once one makes it to adulthood; as Katurian says, "There are no happy endings in human life."
The other idea that animates this disturbing drama is a kind of variation on Jacques Derrida's famous pronouncement, "There is nothing outside the text." According to this view, life is nothing but story: We don't just read stories, we live them, imitate them, discover our significance through them. Every human being is a story in the telling and everyone has a story to flee and another to aspire to.
So the interrogator Ariel tries to escape his abusive childhood by positing a story in which little children flock around him and offer him sweets. His colleague, Tupolski, whose son died by drowning, sees himself as a mathematician high in a tower, saving human lives by the simplest, most effortless gestures. And the audience, too, is implicated: After all, we've all gathered to witness The Pillowman, a story which we hope will somehow nourish our own stories.
And when we're not consuming tales at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, we're searching them out at the movies, on television, in books, magazines and the newspaper (what's the latest on the Mark Foley story? The North Korean story? The Iraq story?) The point isn't that we're strangely obsessed by myths; the point is that that's all there is.
So how does McDonagh combine his two ideas into a gripping piece of theater? He imagines that Katurian, a writer of 400 stories (only one of which was published) is hauled into a police station in the totalitarian state in which he lives. As the bad cop Ariel threatens and manhandles him, and the good cop Tupolski coyly searches for information, Katurian learns that someone in the "real world" has been carrying out the details of his most violent tales.
At least two children are dead and a third is missing; the policemen suspect Katurian or his mentally challenged brother Michal. Katurian is frightened, baffled, skittishly deferential, but when he hears the screams of his brother in an adjoining room (just as he heard them in the next room when he was a child) he becomes adamant: I want to see Michal. Some harrowing minutes later, his wish is granted, and he and we learn the story that everyone's searching for.
The acting in this Jobsite production is, unlike its subject matter, the happiest of stories. Excellent in every case, as professional as you'll find in any theater anywhere, it marks a new high in Jobsite's ascent to Bay area treasure. As Katurian, Steve Garland is a sympathetic Everywriter, needing to believe that, though his body may one day die, his narratives still provide him a chance at immortality. Not entirely honest with himself about the mayhem in his work, actually believing that his parents abused Michal for his literary benefit, Garland is a Kafkaesque victim whose obsession with child abuse is softened by caring for his naive and backward brother.
As that brother, Paul Potenza gives one of the finest performances of his life. His Michal is childlike, loving, forgiving but also dangerously unbalanced and capable of who-knows-what outrages. Ryan McCarthy as sadist/cop Ariel also gives a career-topping performance. I've been critical in the past of a certain sentimentality in McCarthy's acting, but here it's in tension with Ariel's violent anger and the result is a frighteningly convincing man out of control. As Ariel's cooler (but not that much cooler) colleague Tupolski, Matt Lunsford couldn't be better: He radiates quiet power, dominance and supremacy, while holding out the narrow hope that Katurian might still find in him a wisp of conscience.
Director David M. Jenkins displays an impressive command of the ironies in McDonagh's script and has drawn from his actors the sort of ensemble consistency that's a joy to find in any theater. Brian Smallheer's set of a coldly functional interrogation room is just right for this dystopian drama and Katrina Stevenson's costumes are, as usual, top-notch. So to add to the pleasure of the text itself and the acting, there's satisfying design.
Still, there are a couple of imperfections in The Pillowman. The first act is too long — almost two hours on the night I saw the show — and could be every bit as powerful were it a half hour or more shorter. But more important, McDonagh's unremitting pessimism is simply not convincing. We all know that there are childhoods that aren't particularly macabre, life stories that don't center on torture and morbidity, adults who are reasonably healthy and well-adjusted. And to elaborate on that last point — some grownups actually learn from their troubled childhoods to be more merciful, more kind, more respectful of others' pain. McDonagh may be right in finding life a series of stories, but there's more variety to the series than is ever suggested in The Pillowman.
And still this formidable work deserves the attention of every serious — and thick-skinned — theatergoer.