In contemporary usage, rapture has come to refer to an ecstasy, to a joy, often sexual or sacred, beyond words; but its Latin root is raptus, the past participle of the verb rapere—to seize, to take away—which has multiplied over the centuries into rapt, and raptor, and rape. Rapture, then, is not just speechless happiness, but a sensation before which one is powerless: it steals you from the moment, the self, and, in religious tradition, the world. It is, in short, a joy to fear. David Hare’s The Secret Rapture, now at Trinity Rep, has plenty of feeling, but little fear and joy; its characters believe themselves more pragmatic than that. The play begins and ends with death, and the life illustrated in between is profoundly mitigated by it. Which is not to say that there is no levity or lightness at all in the show—just that it feels more like a tenuous reprieve than a state of rest. What’s natural, Hare suggests, is for us to drift toward jealousy and conflict: even silence, however introverted, however rapt, is a sign of guilt or reproach. Who can be bothered with rapture, whatever it is—awe or terror or transformation or consummation—when life, with all of its mortification, is hard enough?
If this were all that The Secret Rapture were about, we might expect it to feel circular, its ending determined by its beginning and its meaning neatly enclosed within. But the play’s final line includes both a valediction and a summons—“We’re just beginning”—that prevents us from drawing simple conclusions. That line is uttered by Marion (Phyllis Kay), a Junior Minister in Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, who has seemed pathologically incapable of sympathy; her sister, Isobel, by contrast, suffers from the gift of too much feeling. The impetus of the play is the death of their father, but its drama begins when Marion takes back the ring she had given him while he was still alive. Isobel (Rachael Warren), who had assumed care-taking responsibilities and was with their father when he died, watches silently as Marion reclaims the ring from a bedside table, a transgression she justifies too vehemently by insisting that their opportunistic stepmother, Katherine (Anne Scurria), would have taken it herself and sold it for vodka. Marion’s husband, Tom (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), a born-again Christian entrepreneur, bumbles into the scene and proves comically indifferent to moral struggles—the assurance of Christ’s custody has given him a chipper insouciance—and Marion, shamed by Isobel’s equanimity, storms out. The pieces of the show, if not their jigsaw relationships, are suggested immediately: inward calm and furtive busy-ness; the terrible power of silence to rebuke; the possibility of salvation through another person.
The play’s course is tragic; we can, from that first scene, foresee Isobel’s indignities rising like distant mountains. Katherine, a self-loathing and fractious alcoholic, has nowhere to go after her husband’s death, so Isobel takes her on at her small design firm in London. But her disruptive and destructive impulsiveness is too much for Isobel’s colleague and boyfriend, Irwin (Stephen Thorne), who, failing to persuade Isobel to fire her, demands that she leave himself. Isobel runs after her and hires her back. Later, Marion and Tom offer to buy Isobel’s firm, move it to a more comfortable and spacious office, and run it like an investment—with an eye ever on profit. This arrangement, which Isobel never wanted but which she is unable to prevent, proves toxic to her: her relationship with Irwin sickens, her business dries up, and she herself withers. It is hard to convey the ineluctable tectonic movement of the show, which results in the subduction of Isobel’s personality—“No one can remember now, but the big joke is, by temperament, I’m actually an extremely cheerful girl,” she says to Irwin in the second act—and which generates so much heat. If we are horrified by Marion’s, Tom’s, and Katherine’s power to manipulate Isobel, we are also exasperated by her own misguided sense of responsibility that makes her so malleable. Her capacity to empathize—which Marion later calls the effort “to understand everything”—is tested, exploited, and turned against her by those who are supposed to love her the most. The play ends in a setting we know well—Marion’s and Isobel’s father’s house—but its tone is newly desperate. Isobel’s search for peace has itself become a kind of poison: it has made Irwin mad with grief; Marion simply mad; and Tom almost agnostic. Only Katherine, we think, remains unmoved by it.
The Secret Rapture is a steely work, forged in the unforgiving language and the awful silences of the day-to-day. For all of the script’s toughness, the acting is often quite fine. At the tragic center of the show, and subject to all of its unrelenting pressures, is Rachael Warren, who finds Isobel’s familiar qualities—her reluctance to embarrass anyone else, her eagerness to please, her tendency to self-dramatize—and rescues them from bathos or banality. Isobel is a strange character, too: she’s wise enough to recognize the connivance of her family, but not canny enough to resist it. I suppose this is what idealism is, after all, and Warren gives Isobel’s a quality of practicality rather than perfection. She is like a real person, only more so, and we cringe with recognition. Phyllis Kay gives conservatism a bad name (or, rather, an even worse one) as the coldly calculative Marion. To be fair, Marion doesn’t plot Isobel’s downfall; as in the best tragedy, she is only an instrument of a much larger force. Kay’s performance is pitched just right for a politician: she disgusts us not with the extravagance of her nihilism but with the poverty of her affection. And Anne Scurria, who has single-handedly made several Trinity Rep shows worth seeing, is as energetic and believable as ever.
There are problems with the show’s casting, however. The first is that Fred Sullivan, Jr., plays Tom, a sincere evangelist, with a decorative and distracting irony. The script is clear about Isobel’s and Marion’s distrust of religious fervor, but we have to believe that Tom believes himself. As it is, his growing doubt about the efficacy of God’s planning doesn’t touch or sadden us, because Sullivan has played him all along as though in on a joke with the audience. We should be discomfited by Tom’s religious interruptions, not merely amused by them; if we laugh at him, it is at our own peril. Then there is the problem of the characters’ ages. The script calls for Marion and Tom to be in their late thirties, and for Isobel and Katherine to be in their early thirties: Marion is older than her stepmother. Despite impressive performances from Kay, Scurria, and Warren, this tension in their relationship cannot be stretched: Scurria has tremendous youthful vitality, but she is not the same age as Rachael Warren. The casting of older actors bleaches the play of some of its strangeness and energy. When Scurria, as Katherine, worries that she has nowhere to go after the death of her husband, we don’t think twice about it; her concern seems as credible as anyone’s on entering a job market cornered by the young, the unbowed, and the technologically savvy. Imagine a woman hardly older than a child, but already so fatalistic and defeated: to be young and desperate, though still untouched by the fires of experience, is to represent a raw sort of danger. Part of the shame here is that, in Angela Brazil, Trinity may have just the actress for Katherine’s childish impertinence. I can’t help wondering what Brazil’s exuberance would look like, dulled by drink and soured with envy. It might, in fact, be rapturous.