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The Cure at Troy, a much-admired but rarely staged verse drama by the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, makes for a lively and imaginative night of human drama from Quintessence Theatre Group. Director Alexander Burns and an able cast of six distill a classic struggle between gods, mortals, and fate into a rousing exploration of how our dark impulses threaten to shatter the soul—and how the light of compassion can temper our baser urges.
Heaney (1939-2013) took as his source material the ancient play Philoctetes, a lesser-known work of Sophocles, and rendered it in lucid modern language. Without shifting the time period or setting—the action takes place on the remote island of Lemnos, during the Trojan War—he transformed the slim action into a timeless, universal tale that both respects its provenance and leaves it eternally relevant. Heaney sought to create a text that was accessible and engaging, and based on the results here, he succeeded on both counts.
A tough sell?
Despite Heaney’s unquestionable linguistic brilliance—he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995—classical drama always remains a tough sell. Moral instruction often takes precedence over scintillating conflict, and the juiciest action usually happens offstage. The Cure at Troy is predictably awash in words, and it would be inaccurate to say that Heaney breaks the mold by assimilating Sophoclean forms into a 20th-century theatrical aesthetic. But Burns’s briskly paced, engaging production never feels static.
It helps, perhaps, that the source material here doesn’t have the baggage of an Iliad or a Medea. The title character, a great Greek disabled by a snakebite, wastes away in his island confinement, having been abandoned by his compatriot Odysseus (simply put, he’s not quite the hero Homer made him out to be). The marooned man’s sole possession is a divine bow willed to him by Hercules, which Odysseus desperately wants for use in battle. He instructs Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to steal away with the weapon and return to vanquish the Trojans.
There is a chorus, of course, to make plain the points that are otherwise dramatized. Heaney concerns himself with the conflicted nature of these characters, and the ways that human beings constantly straddle emotional states, an ever-evolving private war between good and evil, right and wrong, vengeance and forgiveness. Philoctetes’s hunger for retribution is tempered by compassion, and Neoptolemus’s brash insouciance gives way to empathy in the face of Philoctetes’s pitiable condition. Even Odysseus is not rendered a standard-issue villain.
An excellent ensemble
Burns draws a fine trio of central performances from Steven Anthony Wright (Philoctetes), Jo Vito Ramirez (Neoptolemus), and Joseph Langham (Odysseus). Wright projects the graceful, noble bearing of a warrior even as he collapses under the weight of his injury. His distinctive voice, gravelly yet honeyed, is ideally suited to verse, and he evinces a fatherly kindness toward Ramirez’s Neoptolemus which makes that character’s transformation believable. Langham initially preens like the bad guy in a sword-and-sandal epic, but he eventually settles into a more dimensional style, showing us a person whose obsessive drive toward victory has obscured his moral compass.
As the Chorus, Eunice Akinola, Leah Gabriel, and Michael Liebhauser speak their couplets with precise elocution and rhythmic unity. They also each double as various sailors and shipmates of Neoptolemus, and undertake the deus ex machina that Heaney retains from Sophocles.
Living with anguish
The physical production, which employs an alley configuration, with audiences on both sides of the stage, is equally arresting. Working with John Burkland, who co-designed the set and created the evocative lighting, Burns summons the heat of the Mediterranean isles and the dark reality of Philoctetes’s banishment. Despite few props, an entire world is represented masterfully, largely through smoke effects, vibrant washes of light, and redolent sound cues. A lightbox effect used in the main dais is particularly effective, as it seems to portray the inner feelings of the characters in subtle yet distinctive ways.
In his desperation, Philoctetes declares that “every day has been a weeping wound for 10 years now.” It’s a sentiment that feels oddly relatable now. The Cure at Troy shows how people live with anguish and sorrow—but it also suggests that these are impermanent states. That’s a timely, and timeless, message to take from the theater.
What, When, Where
The Cure at Troy. By Seamus Heaney, after Sophocles, directed by Alexander Burns. $15-$59. Through February 20, 2022, at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 987-4450 or quintessencetheatre.org.
All audience members are required to present proof of vaccination to attend. Masks must be worn at all times. Seating is not distanced.
The Sedgwick Theater is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Seating accommodations can be requested at the time of purchase, both in-person and online. There will be an open captioned performance on Thursday, February 10, 2022, at 7:30pm.
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