Prison in the Round 

Getting Out deftly explores the ins and outs of humanity

“I wanted to write a hostile girl who didn’t care what you did to her. But how could I write a hostile girl, if the girl who came out of prison was perfectly tame? The solution to this problem was the beginning of my life in theatre. I would have to put them both on stage—Arlie, the girl she had been, and Arlene, the woman she had become in captivity.”

These are the words of playwright Marsha Norman about Getting Out, the simultaneous stories of Arlie (Nina Buck), a girl in prison, and Arlene (Stacy L. Ohrt), the same person, released. Norman’s words could be read as the solution to a technical problem—how to show the arc of Arlie/Arlene’s experience—but the play itself makes us feel this doubleness as atemporal, part of an overarching meaning. All the play’s characters have an Arlie-Arlene aspect, and we can catch a glimpse of the liberating aspect of some prisons, as well as the paralyzing possibilities in freedom.

The stage is divided into two main parts—a one-room apartment with a single twin bed, and a jail cell with a toilet and cot. Both have a main window to the outside world, and this aperture is barred: an iron grid covers the apartment window, to keep hypothetical criminals out, thus, theoretically, protecting the tenant within, and there are heavy rungs on the jail cell door, intended to keep an actual criminal in, but in full display.

And it is Arlene in the apartment who moves with excruciating self-consciousness, as if the world’s eyes are upon her, and Arlie in her prison cell who stretches with loneliness toward the invisible humanity around her.

The UM Masquer Theatre’s theater-in-the-round is a good venue for a prison story—the whole question of who is inside or outside of a defined space emerges. Theater-in-the-round can make the actors seem more vulnerable than when they occupy the safety of a removed stage. But it also has the same effect on the audience; it makes them more vulnerable as well. I always want to hug the back wall when I see theater-in-the-round—to ensure that I won’t be among those viewers who figure inadvertently into the overall perception of the play by other members of the audience. (It’s not so much that I’d feel exposed; it’s that I’d feel I was missing out. )

A logistical inclusion of at least some of the audience is perhaps intended by director Gretchen Baer, and related to the thrust of the play.

“We all find ourselves at one time or another in prisons of our own or others’ making; each of us, too, must find a way out,” she states in the program notes.

Do we? Should we? Is prison a universal human experience? Maybe. But if we’re really looking for an answer to those questions, I think that we should view this play very literally. I think that we should see the characters as one-of-a-kind, their story emblematic of no other. And then we should imagine how we would feel if their story were our story. (This would be a preferable reading, to me, than one that claims kinship—the “I may not be in an actual concentration camp, but I know just how Anne Frank feels because I too am a preteen” trend in memoir-literature that has, I think, I hope, become controversial.)

Universality of experience might exist. If we’re going to look for it we should concentrate on the shape of specific details, though, not on ideas about generalized feelings. A toilet is a good start. The gaping maw of a toilet in a jail cell reminds us that imprisonment has acutely to do with the body of the prisoner. Not so acutely as in the days of regimented torture and public displays of execution, detailed so excruciatingly in Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. But acutely enough.

“A punishment like forced labour or even imprisonment, ...” writes Foucault, “had never functioned without a certain additional element of punishment that certainly concerns the body itself. ... There remains ... a trace of ‘torture’ in the modern mechanisms of criminal justice—a trace that has not been entirely overcome, but which is enveloped, increasingly, by the non-corporal nature of the penal system.”

The physical details of this play stick with you—Arlene chewing dry cookies and trying to taste them. They make the “non-corporal” torture—such as the dreadful paternalism of a prison guard—that much more apparent. The guard’s own slow torture of a long and vast loneliness is also made clear. It is the beauty of this play that it can make us love this man and hate his acts.

There are no winners here, really, and no absolute losers. The night I went to Getting Out, the audience left dry-eyed and I think this is due to a certain inconclusiveness in the presentation, which, in turn, is a credit to the production. It is a strength of the play that it does not conclude with a philosophy of imprisonment. Director Gretchen Baer and a strong cast manage to capture the tangible aspects of this version of suffering and then leave them alone.
Getting Out runs nightly through Saturday, Nov. 20 at UM’s Masquer Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $9 general, $7 students and seniors. Call 243-4581.

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