Back in 1993, New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson penned a long-form piece of nonfiction, “The Confession,” about a conceptual artist who opened a telephone line for people wanting to apologize for any wrongs they had committed. Calls to the “Apology Line” were recorded on an answering machine, and would not be relayed to the individuals harmed by the callers’ actions, nor to any law enforcement agencies. The artist, who went by the nom d’art Mr Apology, planned to play the taped confessions in a show at the New Museum. The concept expanded to give callers the option of hearing compilations of confessions and also leaving comments on the confessions, which would in turn be recorded.
This story must have weighed heavily on Wilkinson’s mind, because nearly two decades later he has adapted it into a two-person play, which had its debut last week at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires. Though much of the play adheres to the facts in the story—indeed, a good deal of the narrative makes its way into the script verbatim—Wilkinson chose to make his artist-protagonist a woman who calls herself Sister Sorry. This change serves the drama well.
The play opens with Sister Sorry directly addressing the audience—from a set ingeniously conceived by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams to suggest the industrial structure of a downtown Manhattan loft—looking back from the present to her 1990s Sorry Line art project. Sister Sorry recounts that the Sorry Line captures everything from mundane regrets over lies, betrayals, and minor infractions to confessions of horrendous violent acts. She characterises the calls as one-third false, one-third lies, and one-third somewhere in between.
Over time, Sister Sorry becomes inured to the calls captured on her answering machine, but one day she gets a long message from an agitated young man who calls himself Jack Flash. Jack confesses to having murdered his mother for having belittled and nagged him for years. This call sets the play in motion, as Sister Sorry—whose artistic discipline has always centered on remove and control—succumbs to curiosity and concern, gradually letting herself become more involved in Jack’s story. In a series of phone-call confrontations—none of which entail actual in-person encounters—the balance of power shifts, and Jack transforms from a subject within her art project to a potential threat who takes the psychological reins.
This threat becomes visceral in one striking moment of the play. As she recounts the story, Sister Sorry remains inside the confines of her loft. Her space, a rectangle demarcated by beams within the stage, contains two desks, outfitted with not much more than a phone, the answering machine, and a desk lamp. A brick wall with a quadrant of flyers (including a few for the Sorry Line) and the stage space beyond the beams effectively represent the city. At one point, as their phone conversation becomes ever-more heated, Jack, who has been restlessly ranging around the dark outskirts of the stage, steps over a beam, into Sister Sorry’s space, and the threat is palpable. Though she has remained anonymous, with her residence unknown to him, she has carelessly let herself be seen by Jack, and this slip from remove to involvement has rendered her vulnerable and unnerved, however calmly she looks back on this episode.
Jennifer Van Dyck is superb as Sister Sorry; I can’t imagine anyone else better in this role. In this intelligent performance, she conveys the perfect balance of artistic inquisitiveness and world-weariness. Christopher Sears as Jack Flash also brings the right balance between haplessness and angry volatility to portray a truly disturbed and potentially violent individual. The direction, by Joe Calarco, is spot on. Superb lighting and sound design by, respectively David Lander and David Budries, subtly and effectively add to the foreboding atmospherics on stage.
Wilkinson’s decision to change the protagonist from the male artist of real life to a female artist heightens the conflict, lending a searing tension to the drama. My only quibble was the introduction of a mathematical theorem as a device to bring the story full circle. Finding an end to a play is perhaps the most difficult task of a playwright, and the addition of this device struck me as unnecessary, an attempt to make the story have some greater intellectual depth. Regardless, Sister Sorry is a play that will resonate with the viewer long after seeing it in a theater, perhaps just as the true story would not let go of the playwright.
Sister Sorry runs at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through August 29.