Given the current mania for calling things plays that struggle to fill 90 minutes and harp self-consciously on one theme with one polished scene to address it, a piece like David Hare’s “Skylight” — with its long-winding but never long-winded, and keenly intelligent, dialogues on life, love, relationships, lifestyles, and choices — is manna in the wilderness.
Its refreshing dramatic and thoughtful nourishment is underscored gorgeously in a natural, organic, attention-absorbing production for Princeton’s McCarter Theater directed by Emily Mann and brought to palpable, immediate life by Greg Wood, Zane Pais, and the extraordinary Mahira Kakkar.
“Skylight” might be verging on its 25th year, but except for its absence of mobile phones, Hare’s look at figures from an abruptly ended affair and family situation from the past touches on ideas and themes that are so universal, they resonate for all times.
The beauty of “Skylight” is it hones in on the wide-ranging by being particular. Hare depicts a specific relationship and all that is personal and individual about it while demonstrating how, in the 21st century, the course of true love continues to elude being smooth.
Hare’s is a play of substance as well as circumstance. Conversation, including explanations, recriminations, and complaints, between Tom (Wood) and Kyra (Kakkar), lovers, and business associates for six happy years before a sudden, traumatic break, is free-wheeling. And, as real conversation does, it covers yards of ground from the mundane activities of everyday life to the crux of what makes two people cleave to each other even when an important chunk of their compatibility has faded.
The triumph of Mann, Wood, and Kakkar is a deftness at making the small, matter-of-fact talk as interesting and engaging as more intense topics like the root causes and results of their fissure, the divergent paths they’ve taken since it, and their separate views of the world and the work to be done in it.
Hare goes deep but always stays within the crucial aspects of life and presents his characters’ points of view in lively, rational ways that give due to a range of opinions and positions.
Hare is Hare, so “Skylight” becomes political, but the gift of the playwright and Mann’s production is all sides get a hearing, and while one might be preferred and even advocated by Hare, the production doesn’t give in to his bait. It remains fair, giving credence to both arguments, thus showing different legitimate takes on the world and how individuals arrive at them.
That level of even-handedness, that retains bite and drama, is harder to achieve than it looks. Mann and her cast navigate more than one transition that might seem hasty or jarring in less adroit hands.
One such passage, in the second act, is a particular spate of acrimony that seems to come structurally from nowhere immediate. Mann and company make the wise and bold decision to just plunge into it. The comfortable, unpretentious, and genuine tone of the production eases the jolt, and though “Skylight” shifts, the McCarter crew and Hare’s overall ability to captivate, keep all focused so that Mann’s ship sails as securely and absorbingly as ever.
Elegance and intimacy prevail in this production. Wood and Kakkar quickly establish a renewed rapport that governs the true-of-life flow of what happens. Kakkar creates the same instant bond with Pais, who plays Tom’s son, Ed. He is a sometimes-ward of Kyra, now presenting himself at age 18 and, while he talks talking about his estrangement from his father, he displays shared traits, including a youthful, generous charm.
The parallels between habits Wood and Pais share are among several felicitous touches Mann and her cast develop. Another is the way Montana Levi Blanco’s original costume for Kyra exactly matches her furniture. Best of all is how at home Kakkar’s Kyra is in her apartment. While acting Kyra with variety and precision, Kakkar offhandedly does a slew of domestic chores. She cooks a complete meal of spaghetti, preparing the herbs and vegetables for her sauce with nonchalant aplomb, even as she converses and spars with Tom.
The essence of fine acting is creating the solid impression that one is living his or her life instead of miming it. Kakkar demonstrates such acting with dividends. Her Kyra takes each moment as it comes, and that kind of acting invites you into her world as an admirer and as someone who wants to listen to what has happened and is happening in Kyra’s life. Confronting the past, and putting it in its place, is one of “Skylight’s” themes, and Kakkar deftly lives a woman doing just that.
Greg Wood has become so accomplished in endowing his leading men with character traits, his recent performances, from “Twelfth Night’s” Malvolio to “Skylight’s” Tom, are filled with self-losing nuance and insights into what makes each character individual and human.
Wood is a more relaxed Tom than the man who is said to plop recklessly on furniture and keep a manly distance from anything emotional. He finds ways to dodge or defuse the difficult while conveying how many moods and topics of conversation Tom can muster. You see the charm and the boyishness Kyra and Ed describe while seeing a man who has overcome a lot to be successful, who wants to remember what he was before his success, and who sincerely loves and misses a person who gave stability to his life even as he was married, and in love with, a woman who figures in all the characters’ lives.
Wood’s Tom is never hard or aloof as he could be. For the better, he is somewhat playful and chooses to use wit both to present and maintain arguments and to show a man to whom Kyra could be attracted and for whom she could develop true and lasting feelings.
Zane Pais fits in to the easy relationship that exists between Kyra and the men. Pais is not afraid of being the little boy Kyra once babysat or revealing the grown man he is striving to become. Pais joins Kakkar in making the closing scene of “Skylight” a warm delight that restores an optimism that would have disappeared if Hare hadn’t included this sweet epilogue.
Beowulf Boritt does a masterful job of conveying the simplicity and squalor of Kyra’s North London apartment while endowing it with a homey warmth that Kakkar’s performance reinforces. Montana Levi Blanco gives the right note to the characters’ wardrobe. And Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design creates some dramatic touches of its own. Jason Lyon’s lighting adds to the reality Mann establishes so carefully.
Skylight, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Through Sunday, June 2. $25 to $80. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.