Light that helps, light that hurts in ‘Sing the Body Electric’ from Theatre Exile

Kishia Nixon and Trevor William Fayle in Theatre Exile's world-premiere production of

Kishia Nixon and Trevor William Fayle in Theatre Exile's world-premiere production of "Sing the Body Electric." (Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras)

In Walt Whitman’s poem “I Sing the Body Electric,” the human body and soul are perfect. In Michael Hollinger’s stimulating new play “Sing the Body Electric,” from Theatre Exile, everyone is damaged.

A woman who works as a life counselor has fled to Florida to get away from an addicted husband. She’s taken her eye-rolling teenage daughter, who brims with generalized resentment, with her.

A physics teacher whose wife has run off with another man is angry and also in transition – he’s lost his job. He’s despondent but functional, trying his best to be a decent dad to his teenage son. That boy is the personification of the play’s title — he is “the body electric,” having been struck by lightning, an incident that scars him, not just physically.

So they are all scarred — disparate families whose lives will mesh in a play that’s oddly sweet in the way it unveils its characters’ vulnerabilities. It’s also filled with allusions to the healing and hurting powers of light and fire. There are fireflies and talk of electrons. The lights go off in one scene and a mantra chanted at a counseling session declares that we glow from within. Even Masha Tsimring’s lighting design echoes the theme: instead of typical stage lights, scores of lamps adorn the ceiling over the playing space.

Anyone with teens, or who deals with them regularly, can identify with the fractured conversations between the two teenagers and their parents that Hollinger writes so naturally, as if they came to him while he visited his inner teenage self. On the play’s down side, Hollinger tries too hard when he introduces another allusion to fire very late in the 90-minute play. It involves one of the characters, an attempt at a wow! moment that for me was more like are you kidding?

But that’s a blip for a play that moves swiftly, has a solidly built plot and in the  production staged by Exile artistic leader Deborah Block, sits on a foundation of aching hearts. “Sing the Body Electric” is also funny, not in its dialogue but in the way the characters, awkward with each other and with life in general, unintentionally behave. The five-actor cast mines the humor skillfully without telegraphing it – it’s up to the audience to find it. When I saw a performance Friday night, the audience didn’t need to search for it.

Kimberly S. Fairbanks plays a charming Doris, the woman who’s moved to Florida to start a new life. Her daughter is an honest portrayal by Kishia Nixon, who has the most difficult role because we never know why her character is shamelessly impudent, bluntly asking questions that stir trouble or infringe on privacy. Hollinger never gives us a hint in the text, except when she blithely explains it away to Blake, the high-school senior she’d like to know better: “Sometimes, I just want to make things happen.”

Blake, the lightning-struck boy, responds with a blank reaction that’s his way of keeping his own counsel. He’s played by Trevor William Fayle, and when you watch Fayle through the play, look closely at his eyes. Everything his character has to say shouts out behind them. In front of them, there’s a sad resignation. It’s a testament to his skill in the role.

Blake’s father is unmistakably at sea, a feeling clearly broadcast from Anthony Lawton, who plays him as a forlorn cuckold who may not deserve better. Mary Lee Bednarek colorfully plays a fifth character, a participant in a group session for everyone to talk out issues. She’s tangential to the play until a later point when for a brief moment, she’s not.

Hollinger, a locally-based playwright whose work is performed in regional theaters nationally, is having a major Philadelphia season. Even as Theatre Exile runs this world premiere, 1812 Productions is set to open his comedy “Hope and Gravity” on Wednesday. Earlier this season, Arden Theatre Company produced the world premiere of “Touch Tones,” a musical for which Hollinger wrote the lyrics and the book, and Act II Playhouse in Ambler mounted his noir comedy “Red Herring.” Lightning is striking for him, in a good way.

“Sing the Body Electric,” produced by Theatre Exile, runs through May 13 at the theater inside the Latvian Society, Seventh and Spring Garden Streets. 215-218-4022 or theatreexile.org.

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