It’s a very rare show in which the audience rises as one for a standing ovation – and it’s rarer still when the audience springing to its feet is composed largely of older adults. However, that was the reception of The North Pool, which opened last night at the Lucie Stern Center in Palo Alto.
The 2009 suicides of Gunn High School students are still very close to us here, not the least because the number of deaths was far greater than local newspapers indicated. Off-the-track suicides and suicides of recent grads thankfully escaped coverage. However, this issue touched almost everyone. Like survivors of a shipwreck, we greet each other cautiously, identify ourselves in terms of proximity: “I was his babysitter,” “I knew him when he was eleven months old,” “she was my son’s kindergarten play date.”
When a new death on the tracks occurs – as it did last month – Palo Alto Online tries to insulate the story, speaking of “intentional” deaths, refraining from the word “suicide.” Insofar as it’s motivated by a desire to minimize copycats, this insulation and minimization is arguably laudable. However, it strips us of our ability to look at ourselves as a community and only isolates us further. We cling to the collective grief that racked the community in the spring of 2009 because losing it would mean the losing those who are already gone and losing some raw truth that we failed those who matter most. This long windup explains why the opening night audience leaned forward with a tense silence that remained unbroken throughout the final 30 minutes of The North Pool.
The North Pool was workshopped at TheatreWorks by Pulitzer finalist Rajiv Joseph in 2009. Through repeated scripts and casts, the play evolved to what it is now. While this psychological thriller isn’t about suicide per se, suicide is a key element of the underlying subtext. Given that suicide is but one dimension of a very complex play, it speaks naturally to a community in which suicide is a significant thread of almost every larger community debate. This is where the arts can save us. While school administrators and politicians continue their clueless blather, the artistic community is better equipped to speak to matters of the human spirit. This impulse was at work in the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre production Secret Life of Girls, and it lies at the heart of The North Pool.
The 90 minute two-man show isn’t broken by an intermission, allowing the tension to build slowly, almost imperceptibly. For the first 15 minutes or so, the pace is stultifying. However, this is a very necessary counterbalance to the latter half of the show, during which the audience honed in like a laser on the tense breathing of the actors.
Adam Poss, who plays the Syrian student Khadim, and Remi Sandri, as Vice Principal Danielson, break each other down as effectively as foreign agents – which each is to the other’s world. Speaking to matters of class, ethnicity, expectations, and relentless subterfuge, they ultimately lay each other bare. The end of this drama was changed during the workshop process, in deference to the community where it was slated to open. Not having seen the original, I cannot speak comparatively. However, this ending was sufficiently convincing – at least as played by Poss and Sandri.
Robert Kelley has done it again and brought us a rare gem. After seeing The North Pool, Rajiv Joseph will be on everyone’s radar.
The North Pool
by Rajiv Joseph
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
Featuring Adam Poss and Remi Sandri
March 9th – April 3rd
Photo Credit: Mark Kitaoka