Dragging Heals


Show #47: An Accident, Magic Theatre, April 21.

Arwen Anderson and Tim Kniffin in An Accident. Photo by Jennifer Reiley

By Sam Hurwitt

An Accident comes from a very personal place. It’s a two-person play between a woman critically injured in an accident and the man who ran over her. Playwright Lydia Stryk was run over by a truck in a hit-and-run incident while riding her bicycle in Berlin seven years ago and went through a long, grueling process of regaining her mobility.

The details in the play are different: Libby was running across the street while texting someone on her cell phone while Anton was pulling out of a supermarket parking lot, lost in thought about the cherries he just bought. The crucial difference is that Anton sticks around. He lingers at her bedside when she’s still unconscious, introduces himself when she wakes, and stays by her side throughout her recovery, wracked by guilt, craving forgiveness, and trying to heal her. It’s unclear whether Anton even goes back to work at the school where he teaches history, because he’s with Libby nearly all the time and seemingly never changes his clothes.

It’s a good thing that this isn’t Stryk’s story, because Libby is such an insufferable character that 80 minutes with her in Magic Theatre’s world premiere production feels too long. I’ve liked Arwen Anderson more and more in every show I’ve seen her in lately, especially her recent turn at the Magic in Mrs. Whitney, but there’s a lot about her portrayal of Libby that I find baffling. Whenever Libby says something stiff-upper-lippy, which is often, she does it in a cutesy voice that’s tantamount to baby talk.

There are some challenging aspects to the role that Anderson handles particularly well. Chief among these is the fact that Libby’s paralyzed, and Anderson does a terrific job of embodying her slow physical recovery, at first able to move nothing but her face, then gradually gaining more and more freedom of movement in her head and neck, and much slower still regaining feeling in the rest of her body. It’s no small feat to capture that process believably, which Anderson does. There’s some nudity involved, which makes the role more vulnerable still. Then there’s the process of emotional recovery, and here’s where I think the play fails her.

Although occasionally amusing, her monologues are particularly grating, which is a problem because that’s how the play starts. “Someone asked me if I wanted to stay,” she says of her coma. “I said no way!” She wonders aloud where her body is, and tells herself not to panic. “Oh god, oh fuck, something terrible has happened to me,” she says. “I wonder what it was.” She goes back and forth between freaking out and consoling herself in that cloying 8-year-old voice. The memory loss accompanying her condition is mostly a plot device: it allows the circumstances behind the accident to emerge gradually, and also helps account for her lack of visitors besides Anton. She knows her own name—first name, anyway—and that’s about it.

That must come in a close second in Libby’s list of frustrations after her physical condition, but it doesn’t entirely account for how capricious she is. She flirts with Anton then rages at him. She makes him dance for her. She has ample reason to be upset, especially at him, but her actions don’t really seem like they flow from that, or from much of anything aside from a way to pass the time. When they get into arguments, they come out of nowhere and aren’t really about anything—Anton’s fascination with Civil War battlefields, for instance. They’re just a contrived way to manufacture drama. There are some glimmers of vulnerable authenticity when Anderson’s Libby gets serious, neither playful nor spiteful and for just a moment not putting on a performance to herself or to Anton but simply trying to connect, but these glimpses are all too rare and fleeting.

Except for those petulant confrontations, Tim Kniffin’s Anton at least seems a bit more down-to-earth, especially in his first monologue as he tells the recounts the whole incident from his perspective: going to the store just to buy cherries, just because it was hot, not because he really needed anything, and then hearing the scream and the thump. The dance he does for her is also pretty funny.

An austere staging by Rob Melrose, artistic director of the Cutting Ball Theater, gives a sense of how frustratingly slow Libby’s recovery is, which has the effect of making a relatively short play seem longer than it is.Erik Flatmo’s set effectively uses the thrust stage and forced perspective to give the illusion of a long hospital room, its white walls growing smaller toward the rear. Sara Huddleston’s sound design keeps you off-balance with weird, squelchy electronic music between scenes, and York Kennedy’s lighting gets its moment to shine in an accelerated dawn.

The script has a number of clever lines, as when Libby says she tells the nurses they met by accident, even if she immediately ruins it with the hackneyed follow-up, “But there are no accidents, are there?” Her humming her way through the forgotten lyrics of “Night and Day” is amusing, especially as it breaks up another tedious monologue. There are some effective parallels between the jerky movements she makes him do in the beginning, like the beginning of the hokey-pokey, and him giving her the same instructions earnestly when she starts to regain control of her limbs. But it feels more like a setup than a story.There’s a reason that Libby can’t remember her life and Anton doesn’t talk much about his: they don’t feel real enough to have any.

An Accident
Through May 9
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason Center, Building D
San Francisco, CA

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