What would you do if it happened to you? This is one of many questions that Edward Albee's The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?, currently at Southern Rep, ponders. The play's characters -- a married couple, their teenage son and a family friend -- are faced with the unthinkable, a crisis "so awful you have to laugh," says Stevie (Maureen Silliman), the wife and most wronged of the lot.
The family's modernist living room (rendered by set designer Geoffrey Hall), in which the entirety of the drama unfolds, radiates harmony -- a book about Zen is one of many on this well-read tribe's shelves. Martin (William Ragsdale), the patriarch, has just been honored with architecture's equivalent of a Nobel Prize and been awarded a high-profile commission in the same week he turned 50. Stevie shops for dress gloves and shad roe while Martin is off designing model cities. Yet she seems every bit Martin's equal, as evidenced by their rapport as well as her own comportment.
Perhaps the one wrinkle in the family's aura of perfection is the sexual orientation of their teenage son Billy (Leicester Landon). Despite his liberal political views, Martin seems vaguely disappointed by his son's homosexuality. The fact that Billy is out of the closet to begin with belies a much closer-knit and accepting family than many.
Arguably the most enviable element in all this bliss is Martin's and Stevie's 22-year marriage. As the plot unwinds, we learn not only that both of them have been faithful (up until Martin's recent indiscretion, the subject of our story), but neither of them has even been tempted to stray. These are two people who seem to connect on every level, whether it's physical, emotional or intellectual. There are no gaps in their intimacy.
So when Martin falls in love with a goat -- not lust, but transcendent, spiritual love -- well, what exactly does happen? Martin hasn't become a bad husband, other than being a bit preoccupied and smelling like a stable. He still loves his wife and son. On the exterior, nothing about this family's life together has changed.
Which brings us to other questions posed by the play: What is unforgivable? How much are we able to overlook? And does Martin's loving a member of another species change who he is? Both Martin and Stevie would like to press the rewind button, to have their life back exactly the way it was. But as Stevie says to Martin, "You've broken something, and it can't be fixed." One of the strengths of this production is that we wish, for their sake, that it were not so.
Ragsdale's performance highlights strong ensemble work. As Martin, when he waxes about the fateful day he met Sylvia and the depth of his love for her, we are drawn into an unfathomable heart. Silliman as Stevie is clever, warm and so strong that she seems in control even as she hurls pottery to the floor. When her resilience and shock give way to intense grief, it is all the more difficult to watch. As Billy -- an ironic name for the son of a goat-lover -- Landon hits the right pitch of wounded adolescent angst. Played capably by Karl Lengel, Ross comes across as instantly disingenuous. To the production's credit, with the exception of Ross, these are not perfect people we love to hate, whose downfall we might take pleasure in watching. Their story is tragic.
But should it be? Directed by Southern Rep artistic director Ryan Rilette, this production features a merit that can double as a flaw. One senses that the absurdity of the situation and the precision of Albee's language could be played up more. That approach, presumably, would heighten the comic aspects of the play and put wind in its sails. Instead, this production engages the audience more deeply on an emotional level. This isn't a bad thing, but the overall effect is that the play becomes a bit more laden than perhaps was intended. Although there are extremely funny moments, the balance between the tragic and the comic seems too heavily weighted toward the former. Having acknowledged this, there is a lot to be said for an evening of theater that is emotionally affecting, makes you laugh out loud, and reminds you that thinking is a pleasure in itself. For these reasons, this is certainly not a show to be missed. For most, the play's questions are unanswerable. That it inspires us to ask them -- and makes us laugh in the process -- is more than enough.