Contemporary Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse's Sa Ka La, now being produced by Oslo Elsewhere, has all the ingredients of a standard-issue domestic traumedy, from the estranged adult siblings and their significant others gathering for a birthday celebration, to an impending death in the family, to grudges, repression, and secrets itching to reveal themselves, including, of course, adultery. The recipe should be familiar to anyone who's seen the recent New York stagings of Crimes of the Heart, Festen, or The Clean House, or read the Washington Post's review of August: Osage County. Here we go again, this reviewer assumed, and settled to wait for the inevitable eleventh-hour confession of poverty-driven-stinginess, child abandonment, incest, or whatever. Then Fosse proved this assumption absolutely wrong.
As Henning (Frank Harts) and Johannes (Raymond McAnnally) wait for their wives--a pair of sisters (Birgit Huppuch and Marielle Heller)--and joint mother-in-law to arrive for the mother-in-law's sixtieth birthday party, another story unfolds on the same stage, which, in the world of the play, is a hospital room across their nameless city. The sisters' Mom has had a stroke, and her daughters are with her and a sympathetic but acerbic Nurse (Jacqueline Antaramian) at the hospital, waiting for their mysterious estranged brother (Noel Joseph Allain) to arrive. Meanwhile, everyone has failed to inform Henning, Johannes, and their friends (Anna Gutto and Mike Caban) that Mom's party has been called off, much less why. None of these people are much good at communication: the proliferation of mundane secrets, adulteries, and grudges demonstrates that. They remain in the dark partly because they prefer it to difficult knowledge; partly because the people who supposedly love them want them in the dark. Meanwhile, Mom, her muscles partially paralyzed, struggles to speak. The gibberish title phrase -- "Sa Ka La" -- is nearly all she is able to utter. Like the Ancient Mariner, she must communicate this truth -- whatever it means -- to someone in particular before she can find respite in death.
What does"Sa Ka La" mean? Nothing I can tell; maybe nothing Fosse knows, either. A dynamic, chillingly realistic actress, Kathryn Kates communicates the urgency of Mom's desire to communicate, without shedding any light on her message. Other questions remain unanswered as well, about details of the lives and conflicts of the sparsely drawn yet totally psychologically genuine characters. This is no accident. It is as if Samuel Beckett, the playwright of absolute minimalism, had convinced Fosse's fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, the master of realism, to agree to a collaboration. Fosse, translator-director Sarah Cameron Sunde, and a sharp, tightly-knit ensemble cast make the conflicts real, so the details take a back seat to the suspense, the tension, and the screams inside the silences.
Sunde's blocking increases the deliberately infuriating sense of missed communiques; of characters passing each other in the figurative night. Characters in both locations cross in front of each other. In one scene, a character in the party room and one in the hospital stand back to back, almost, but not quite touching.
Jo Winiarski's scenic design reveals the outlines of hospital room and party room at once. It consists of an unencumbered platform, a hospital bed, a tiny table bearing a birthday cake almost levitated by a bunch of bright blue-and-white balloons, and a wall of wide, tall glass windows. The ice-blue, grey, and white tones of the set also possibly suggest the icy shores of Norway, at least as this reviewer, never having seen those shores, imagines them. At the same time, the room could be anywhere. Jen Caprio's costumes, in matching shades of blue, gunmetal, white, and sunrise-orange, allow the characters to stand out against the sets while fitting in the overall color scheme.
The only area in which this play doesn't entirely work is the dialogue's repetitive inclusion of the word "yeah." The first few "yeahs," denoting affirmation, nonchalance, fear or boredom or helpless verbal litter, are fine. People talk like that, yeah. But then when you can, yeah, hear thirty seconds of yeah, dialogue, in which the word "yeah" is spoken, yeah, seven times--yeah, seven, yeah, it starts to sound like a gimmick. Like Mamet's first naturalistic, then overdone signature expletives. But that's a small glitch in an otherwise compelling production of a play that has taken too long to find an American audience. Far too long, yeah.