We’re all too used to storylines of criminals in sensationalist action thrillers. Yet “This Wide Night” takes two ex-convicts and explores the humanity behind them in a tender and intimate portrayal of two women adjusting to their newfound freedoms and their evolving relationship with each other.
The play was originally written by Chloë Moss as a commission for Clean Break, a theater company in the UK focusing on the stories of female prisoners, and is making its Bay Area premiere with Anton’s Well Theater Company at the Berkeley City Club.
“This Wide Night” opens on Lorraine (Mary Jo Price), who was recently released from prison, as she frantically arrives unannounced at her former cellmate Marie’s (Miia Ashley) small studio. Marie is visibly terrified as she hears the first knock and remains apprehensive and reserved for the remainder of the scene, standing nervously across the room making small talk even as Lorraine is delighted to see her.
Yet as the two women begin to reminisce about their experience together, it’s clear from their warm banter the level of comfort they had — or rather, once had — with each other. It’s the juxtaposition of this friendship with the palpable tension between them that keeps us engaged, hinting at the hidden secrets and troubled past that each woman harbors.
Keeping the audience consistently and eagerly anticipating the next line is no easy feat for a slice-of-life play with only two characters that takes place entirely on one set, and accordingly, much credit goes to actresses Mary Jo Price and Miia Ashley, who deliver captivating performances that elicit the nuances in the characters. Resultantly, we find ourselves empathizing with them despite any distance we may have to their actual circumstances.
Pieces of each of the women’s past and present lives are revealed as they come and go from the room and we watch Lorraine struggling to find and connect with her son and Marie trying to keep up her job and avoid falling back into old patterns of self-destruction. Yet all of this is not directly shown — it’s framed through the conversations Lorraine and Marie have with each other. This setup ends up being ironic, as the women are finally free from prison yet are portrayed only through their conversations in the confines of a small room.
These choices are very effective in complementing the theme of freedom that is weaved throughout the play. Lorraine and Marie frequently mention the concept of freedom, sometimes exclaiming in near disbelief that they’re finally free and other times commenting on how restricting their freedom feels. As the play progresses and the audience learns more about the two women, the vices of each of their pasts catch up to them in some way, conveying a disconnect between their physical freedom and a more spiritual or conceptual freedom for which they still search.
While the play is largely focused on developing the friendship between these two women and empathizing with their struggles to fit into society, Moss also doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the flaws that led them to prison in the first place. We learn of Lorraine’s crime that sent her to prison for 12 years and witness an uncontrollable anger, yet we also witness her as a warm mother figure with a nervous lack of confidence in herself. Price and Ashley are careful in portraying these nuances in character that are key in developing empathy in the play.
“This Wide Night” paints a picture of an overlooked and stigmatized group — women prisoners — yet avoids being didactic in message, instead relying on the empathy created by the narrative of the two women and how their circumstances complicate the universal struggle to find one’s own place in the world.
“This Wide Night” will run at the Berkeley City Club through Dec. 17.