You think right away of How I Learned to Drive. Kate Robin’s The Light Outside (the Flea Theater) also deals with the disturbing subject of incest and, like Paula Vogel’s play, makes the seduction understandable and the perpetrator sympathetic. Robin’s drama is even more unsettling because the seducer-rapist is a 12-year-old boy and the reluctantly consenting partner is his seven-year-old sister. Both are seen as victims—of their parents. But Robin stacks the deck. Poor Frankie has just found his way home from the camp bus—where no one showed to pick him up, just as no one wrote to him all summer except his sister Peg. Hearing screams from his parents’ bedroom, he enters to find Dad vigorously fucking a handcuffed Mom. Terrified, he pulls Dad off, who, in the struggle, falls down unconscious. He’s not dead, but it’s a while before anyone tells Frankie.
“Why do you like me?” Frankie plaintively begs Peg soon after. She just does, devotedly. Alone together, the kids are roughly intimate. Peg fantasizes about being orphans in Paris, while Frankie pooh-poohs her silliness. She asks him what a “boner” is. The answer leads to “pretend” sex that becomes their “secret.” As the game intensifies, Peg gets scared, but she clings to her brother against her parents. As played winningly and convincingly by adult actors Elizabeth Bunch and Chris Messina, the siblings’ bond is sweet and authentic. The tension between its innocence and the looming rape vibrates. It’s powerful stuff.
But enter Mom or Dad, and The Light Outside feels flat and fake. Despite the best efforts of actors Karen Silas and Robert LuPone, the unhappy marriage of these narcissistic New York stereotypes is boring, and their callousness toward their children unbelievable. They seem the monsters of an angry child’s rage, without redeeming humanity. This failing undercuts the play’s grisly, tragic conclusion, as do some of Jim Simpson’s directorial choices. While wonderfully sensitive with the “kids,” he elsewhere employs a battery of shock tactics that feels like overkill. When you have a story this strong, a whisper’s more harrowing than a fusillade.