Review: 'A Slow Air' is spirited and thoughtful

In this theater image released by 59E59 Theaters, Susan Vidler, left, and Lewis Howden are shown in a scene from David Harrower’s "A Slow Air," performing off-Broadway as part of Scotland Week by Tron Theatre Company at 59E59 Theaters in New York. (AP Photo/59E59 Theaters, John Johnston)

NEW YORK (AP) — A gifted playwright can find poetry in the most ordinary-seeming people and events. David Harrower has successfully done this in his sad, funny and lovely two-hander, "A Slow Air."

The spirited, thoughtful production opened Thursday night off-Broadway at 59E59 Theaters, presented by Tron Theatre Company as part of Scotland Week.

On a symbolically split stage, a pair of long-estranged, early middle-aged Scottish siblings present alternating monologues, reflecting (with differing viewpoints) on their lives, their family history and their 14-year stand-off.

Harrower, who also directed, provides his present-day characters with a deluge of colorful dialogue, deceptively simple yet packed with apt metaphors for modern life, right down to the title.

Written with strong Scottish accents and packed with regional slang and dialect, most of it is perfectly understandable to a non-Scottish ear. This is due in no small part to the actors, Lewis Howden and Susan Vidler, who each invigorate their characters' intersecting narratives with unique personalities.

Howden projects a solid, likable, slightly melancholy personality as Athol, a gruff but good-hearted father of two grown children. He lives with his longtime wife, Evelyn, in Houston, a village in west central Scotland that ends up also being the home of the 2007 failed Glasgow airport bombers. Owner of a successful but now-struggling floor-tiling company, Athol is dressed in a fuzzy fleece pullover and jeans that reflect his humble personality.

His down-to-earth nature contrasts starkly with his snarky, bullheaded, younger sister Morna, (a fiercely engaging performance by Vidler.) A house cleaner for well-to-do people in Edinburgh, Morna never met a person she wouldn't pick a fight with.

Vidler is lively and intense, particularly when projecting Morna's fierce pride at raising her 20-year-old son Joshua by herself, and when ruefully relating how she blew her one chance at a decent marriage. Morna dresses in tight clothing with a bit of flash, and balances her toughness with a ribald sense of humor.

Morna blames her family for ostracizing her, while Athol is still wondering why she caused the rift with him 14 years ago. Then moody, introverted Joshua, on the eve of his 21st birthday, unexpectedly tries to reconnect with his uncle.

Josh, who may have secret hopes of reuniting Athol and Morna, is a bit creepily obsessed with the bombers who lived down the street from his uncle; "Trust Scotland to produce crap terrorists," he tells Athol scornfully. Since Josh is Morna's son, and has the know-it-all attitude typical of young adults, it's no surprise that his actions will be a bit rash and inflammatory.

Tension rises as events unfold, and the intersecting stories finally collide during what Morna sarcastically calls "the night of a thousand surprises." Harrower's skill with the carefully carefully crafted scenes creates a complete picture of a recognizable if dysfunctional family — in a mere 80 minutes.

The family's personal fracturing can also be overlaid with parallel social conditions — like apathy, the global economic downturn, and ongoing cultural clashes — that are by no means unique to Scotland.