Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre
By Stephen Belber
Directed by Michael Bloom
Review by Craig Idlebrook
Trigger warning: Contains Adult Language
(Lowell, MA) Which watershed moments in our lives define us, the ones where we rise above our fears or the ones where we give in to our basest nature? That’s the central question of the beautiful and flawed production of Dusk Rings a Bell, playing at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
Through a series of monologues, and a smattering of dialogue, playwright Stephen Belber tells of a pair of former lovers at the crossroads of their lives. Molly (D’arcy Dersham), a seemingly successful writer for CNN, returns to the beachfront home of her youth and is so desperate enough to find what she lost that she breaks into the house. There she is confronted by Ray (Todd Lawson), a laconic caretaker whose easygoing nature belies deep heartache and regret. The two soon learn that their lives have crossed paths before, in a more carefree time, and they explore whether they can reconnect, even with the weight of life’s scars.
It is clear in the opening moments of the play that Belber is a logophile, as Molly’s opening monologue is a cascade of exquisite words that come together in a poetic and disarming way to tell her backstory. She has a turn of the phrase for everything. Belber’s writing doesn’t fit as well with Ray’s monologues, as he is a man of few words and repressed emotion, but even here Belber gives the character the power to use complex ideas to shield himself from real feelings.
The play is a dance of words, and luckily both Dersham and Lawson are up to the challenge. In a lesser production, the script would have been taken in like a lecture, but Dersham delivers her lines like a prize fighter, making Molly internally dodge and weave just as quickly as her synapses are firing. Lawson is a perfect counterweight, making sure that Ray never reveals more than he must, especially when he’s not speaking. The actors’ expertise with the source material and their obvious chemistry together makes this play a joy to watch, even though the set, which looks like the inside of the Ark, does its best to thwart our enjoyment.
And yet this production could have been transcendent had the source material been as brave as the actors. Belber, like the character of Ray, sometimes uses words as a substitute for emotional heavy lifting. It would have been wonderful if the script had given Molly and Ray more to do together. It’s telling that perhaps the best moment of the play is a flashback when Molly and Ray are teenagers, at a time when they had not yet mastered the English language, but they were at the peak of their emotional understanding of their lives.