Tackling a modern classic, such as Jean-Paul Sartre's heavy existential play, No Exit, can be daunting, but the College of Charleston's Piccolo production maintains its momentum and delivers a provocative indictment of human nature. The black-box Theatre 220 on campus is well suited for this intimate production. The creepy, androgynous Valet (Haley Barfield) greets theatre patrons and warns them that the hour and half show has no intermission, and if an audience member leaves, readmittance is forbidden. But no worries; the audience wasn't going anywhere.
No Exit is not light-hearted, escapist entertainment. Written in 1944 in reaction to the cruelty and mass destruction of yet another world war, Sartre's gloomy view of humanity is magnified through the relationships of the three main characters.
One by one, the Valet escorts three characters, Cradeau (George Metropolis), Inez (Sally Morris), and Estelle (Nikki Pearcy), to a hotel room, which they are condemned to share for eternity as their form of Hell. No fire and brimstone. No torture chambers. It isn't even that hot in the hotel room, but tortured souls they are. They can never go to sleep. They can never be alone. "Hell is other people," the character Cradeau famously surmises.
Each character is the torturer of the other two, Inez points out. Sartre's cynical sense of humor is not lost, however: a lustful coward, a manipulative lesbian, and a vain gold digger are trapped in a room for eternity with nothing to do but talk.
The hotel room has no mirrors to satisfy their narcissistic tendencies. Their only reflections are through each other. Hell is other people, because Hell, it turns out, is facing the truth about oneself.
Cradeau is afraid of the painful truth. He was imprisoned and executed as a traitor, but he denies being a Nazi collaborator. Metropolis, in his brown tweed jacket and five o'clock shadow, conveys Cradeau's anxiety and self-absorption. His arrogant lust is just one of his sins that led him to damnation.
Inez relishes in the suffering of others and doesn't hesitate to exploit others' weaknesses. She readily admits to emotionally abusing her lover, Florence. Plain-looking in a mannish vest and dark jeans, Morris carries Inez's bitterness in her body language. Apparently Inez is the voice of Sartre and has the best lines of the drama with her astute observations. "Cut off your tongue? You think it will stop you from existing? Stop you from thinking?" she challenges Cradeau when he all he wants is quiet and to be left alone.
Estelle married out of greed and committed adultery to tragic ends. Using her sexuality to achieve her goals, her outward beauty is a decoy for her soulless existence. Dressed in a bold, royal blue dress that accentuates her voluptuous figure and brightens the drab set, Pearcy taps into Estelle's vulnerabilities and fear of being alone.
Director Darielle Deigan keeps the actors moving to avoid getting bogged down in the dialogue. The overall minimalist production is fittingly stark and edgy, particularly the bare light bulb surrounded by wire caging and the nail gun belts wrapped around the electric wires.
Sartre's classic play remains relevant because human beings continue to question the meaning of existence. For those looking for a dose of philosophical reflection, No Exit is the recommended theatrical mirror.