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The Suit (Seattle Repertory)

The Seattle Rep stuns audiences with their production of the highly anticipated, evocative drama “The Suit” running March 19 through April 6. “The Suit” subtly draws you in with its unassuming austere set design, intimate live musical score and powerhouse cast, but violently interjects an emotional gut punch which leaves you reeling long after you have left the theater. The remarkable performance forcefully confronts audiences and demands their involvement by removing the luxury of remaining unbiased observers. That is not an option with this production.

Based on the short story of the same name written by South African author Can Themba, “The Suit” takes audiences on a wild emotional rollercoaster ride. Challenging our beliefs and inspiring us to reason, “The Suit” compels us to grapple honestly with the messiness of life and people before it expels us back to the world. Leaving us dazed, we are left with a profound sense of respect for those who have mastered the ability to truly forgive others and a deep abiding sadness for those impotent to express their emotions constructively and unable to offer compassion to others. “The Suit” succeeds under the inspired direction of Peter Brook, who hooks audiences with the trifecta of talented musicians (Arthur Astier, Mark Christine and Mark Kavuma), brilliant actors and affable characters only to shake our foundation with an inexplicable adultery.

One morning after making breakfast for his wife, Philemon (Ivanno Jeremish) on his way to work is informed by his friend (Jordan Barbour) that his girlfriend has spotted a man visiting Phil’s wife, Matilda (Nonhlandhla Kheswa) each morning for the past 3 months. Shocked, Phil returns home to catch Tilly in the act, where his unexpected return home causes her lover to run out of the house leaving his suit behind. Phil appears to handle the unfortunate situation with poise, never expressing anger or even raising his voice. Instead he informs her that her penance is that she must look after the Suit as a guest in their house.

At the outset Tilly figures that she has gotten off lightly, as the punishment does not seem severe based on the heinous of her crime. During the day, she even plays with the Suit imagining that her own hand placed into the sleeve of the jacket is her lover’s hand touching her. Nonhlandhla Kheswa was spellbinding during this scene. Over time, it slowly begins to dawns upon her the true depth of the punishment. True to his word, that Tilly must honor their guest, she is required at each their meals to put a place setting with food out for the Suit and that she must even pretend to feed it. At one point she must carry the Suit with her and Phil on their walks about town. In the evening, the Suit is taken to their bedroom and propped up on a chair.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa in Peter Brook’s "The Suit".

At first glance the storyline seems absurd. A woman caught in adultery, is required by her husband to entertain the Suit her lover left behind when fleeing, as if it were a living person; an honored guest in their house. Yet, there is something viscerally compelling about the story which connects with audience at a deeper level. It is something potent which moves us as a people, as human beings. At the close of the performance I attended, the audience responded initially with a moment of stark silence, followed by a lengthy and heartfelt standing ovation, which emotionally affected several of the performers.

Initially, the audience’s deeply felt reaction surprised me. Reflecting upon it later, I realized that watching “The Suit” dredges up emotions within us and transforms the shared experience of the play into a profoundly personal one for each of us. It is an unassuming yet powerfully heartrending production which like a mirror draws out a reflection from within those who witness it. Our reactions provides transparency to the wounds experienced by ourselves or inflicted upon others by ourselves, which have shaped how we filter and assess life.

Are we quick to judge and condemn others who fall short of our standard of right and wrong? Are we immovable and without empathy regarding the failings of others or is our first inclination to offer mercy to and seek to understand why a person acted the way which they did? After all, who among us has not wronged another? Which of us has not been wounded by a friend or loved one? None of us. Sadly that experience and the juxtaposition of emotions which follow seems a mandatory requirement of the living.

The audience must wrestle with themselves in the attempt to reconcile these genuinely likeable but flawed characters. Which is deserving of our sympathy? Which is deserving of our scorn? Phil or Tilly? Both or neither? Be careful what you decide as in the end your decision will say more about you as a person than it does to Phil or Tilly. Neither character seems whole. Both are flawed and to a degree victims of their own mindset.

Phil, impotent to express his outrage or anger in the first moment of betrayal, must bury it but these things do not stay buried long. He slowly pays Tilly back for hurting him by wounding Tilly with the ever-present reminder of her betrayal, the Suit. Each new moment the betrayal and hurt is remembered and renewed. Anchored by the Suit, there can be neither forgiveness nor healing for either of them. Tilly starts out aimless and without purpose, but seeks absolution to regain her self-respect. She asks Phil if she can join a cultural club to help give back to the community. He agrees and she begins to find purpose and meaning in her charity work. She discovers her ability to sing and begins to connect with others in the group. She emotes her songs in a contagious manner which brings joy to others.

Phil and Tilly go on with their lives as best as they can but never discuss the adultery. Both of them are shackled by the ever-present Suit, a continual reminder of the wound which is not allowed to heal. Unspoken the wound festers and at last erupts during a gathering of Tilly’s community group meeting at her home. Phil goes too far and takes out the Suit in front of her new friends. He is called out by his friend. He is told that he must doing something about this, they cannot go on like this. Phil struggles, acknowledging that he is unable to do it because his brain is messed up. His friend continues to appeal to him, you must forgive and forget, okay? Phil struggles against his own flesh, but at long last says yes, though it pains him. He must forgive and forget but can he? It is one thing to know the right thing to do; it is quite another thing to walk it out.

The best of theater entertains and yet invites us to go deeper and explore something of significance. It implores us to examine life from a different perspective. The production of “The Suit” succeeds at all levels with the only regret being that the production run at the Seattle Rep is disappointingly short; running only two and a half weeks. Check out the Seattle Rep for tickets to “The Suit” before this gem leaves town.