Paul Hurley and David Daniel in American Players Theatre's The Cure at Troy.
It often takes just the right role to make you aware what an actor's capable of. I've seen American Players Theatre core company member David Daniel before, in last season's Exits and Entrances and this year's Blithe Spirit, among others. While he's a fine actor, none of those roles has stood out so much as his current turn in the vivid, powerful production of The Cure at Troy that opened Sunday in the Touchstone Theatre, APT's indoor venue.
More than any role I've seen Daniel tackle, his impressive performance as the agonized warrior Philoctetes shows he can handle stark, elemental drama and make it seem surprisingly natural.
Given Philoctetes' state -- marooned on an island for 10 years, lonely and in excruciating pain due to a wounded foot that is literally rotting -- this is no mean feat. Daniel invests this battered man, clad in soiled, tattered linen and with his foot bound in rags, with humanity and a wide spectrum of emotion.
The Cure at Troy, contemporary poet and playwright Seamus Heaney's 1990 reworking of an ancient tragedy by Sophocles, is not as unrelentingly grim as it may sound. While it mines themes of war, duty, honor and forgiveness (or the lack thereof), it also contains rich glimmers of hope.
APT artistic director David Frank directs this production, giving it some contemporary touches. Odysseus and a young soldier under his command, Neoptolemus, both sport clothing very similar to military uniforms (black berets and boots, cargo pants) but, wisely, not literal uniforms of any particular country. We also hear, while sitting in the darkness just before the action begins, an ambulance siren. The play is gracefully suspended between ancient Greece and our modern era. Credit for that goes not only to Frank, but also Robert Morgan's costume and scenic design, and of course Heaney's script.
As Frank said of the play in a phone interview this past spring, "It's dense, high-level, ambitious, but accessible and, much of the time, bone simple." Indeed, though this is a play of ideas, its language is quite direct.
The counterpoint to Philoctetes' blistered, devastated body is Neoptolemus (a solid Paul Hurley), who is as baby-faced as Philoctetes is ravaged. While Neoptolemus is reluctant to participate in the swindle Odysseus wants him to perpetrate, he does it anyway. Their goal is to get Philoctetes and his all-powerful bow, which once belonged to Hercules, to return with them and help capture Troy. As played by Jonathan Smoots, Odysseus oozes slick cruelty ("Scruples are self-indulgent at this stage," he sneers).
While Neoptolemus might mean well, he's on ethically shifting ground: befriending and lying to Philoctetes, then coming clean and trying to make amends. A three-woman Greek chorus comments on the action and, particularly through lead chorus actor Sarah Day, represents the views of Heaney himself.
Director Frank's frequent use of the aisles in the small Touchstone keeps the play dynamic. This seems like just the right sort of choice for APT's indoor space. Heaney's reimagining of an ancient tragedy keeps close to the company's roots in classical theater, but it also pulls APT in the direction of living playwrights (something I wish they'd do more of).
Anchored by David Daniel's stellar, nuanced performance, The Cure at Troy is a voyage worth taking.