One of the subjects that Lord Byron took up before his death in 1824 was the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Byron wrote this story as a play in which he attempts to explain what it was that drove Cain to slay his brother. The major portion of this two-hour play, Cain, is a discourse between Cain and Lucifer, wherein he discusses the emptiness of his life and his dissatisfaction with the hardscrabble toil under which he must live. Byron's success in explaining Cain and his crime is a question that must be answered, ultimately, by seeing the play and judging for oneself whether Cain's inner struggle was sufficient to drive him to murder. It is possible to do so in the current production at Burning Coal's Murphey School Theater, where a student presentation of the play is under way.
Director Michael Seebold presents Cain as a part of his graduate work at NCSU. He has assembled his cast and crew from the university's English Department. A second year Master's candidate, Seebold holds Bachelor's degrees in English and Philosophy. His crew hails from such locales as Meredith College and Duke University, as well as NCSU. The cast has been completed by Seebold's associates and students in the NCSU English Department. In an interesting and somewhat baffling case of cross-casting, Seebold has cast Cain as a woman (Kat Reece, an MFA candidate in poetry). Just as baffling, he has cast himself in the pivotal role of Lucifer.
Casting himself seems to have been a misstep. By choosing to become a part of the production, rather than remaining outside of it, he has robbed himself of the necessary ability to remain above the work, rather than within it. In order to properly direct a production you have to see it, and this is the one thing that Seebold is unable to do. He has assembled an excellent cast, but seems to have left them to their own devices, concentrating instead on the pivotal conversation between Cain and Lucifer, which drives Act I.
Adam (Areon Mobasher) is a man who has already suffered at the hands of his God, having been cast out of the Garden and left to live out his life in a hardscrabble existence. Nevertheless, he has produced two sons with his wife, Eve (Mackie Raymond), seen them grow and marry, and is now a grandfather who leads his children in a mildly successful life of farming. Mobasher played Adam as an angry and difficult man who is not in the least bit interested in his elder son's plight. Byron introduces wives for both the sons: Cain's wife is Adah (Nyssa Cave), and Abel (Parick Seebold) is married to Zillah (Emily Morris). Of the two, Adah is the more sympathetic; it is she who must bear up under the weight of Cain's tempestuous rebellion and accompany him when he is, finally, marked and cast out of the family. We see very little of Zillah whose chief function is to lament, in strong and strident terms, the death of her husband. Eve is the overbearing and condemning mother who casts doom and curses her remaining son, damning him and ringing fire and brimstone down on his head. Unfortunately throughout this work, the production left much to be desired in addressing the seeming malevolence directed at Cain by the entire family.
Seebold has worked long, it is apparent, on the staging of this production. The evening begins with a prologue of sorts, written by Seebold and presented by a master of ceremonies, Anna Betts. Seebold has created a disquieting soundtrack of wind and music that is atonal and ominous. Staging and lighting, in a design by Leah Austin, is sharp and dynamic, also lending an other worldliness to the proceedings. The lighting of the altar scene, which highlights and deepens the difference between the two offerings, is striking. Costumes by Alexis Parks place the drama in Byron’s time, and the setting of the scene, as rooms within the household of Adam and Eve and their family, highlights the nuclear family that Cain is tearing apart.
The chief and pivotal conversation that takes place between Lucifer and Cain is the very meat of this production. Reece played Cain here with a petulant air of uncaring, self-centered arrogance. This made the leading man/lady come across as uncivil at best to his father, dismissive of his brother, cold to his wife, and not in the least interested in his children or the rest of his family. There is much work to be done on Cain and Lucifer's central and pivotal discussion, which first needs to be better heard and understood. The two actors did not hold lively conversation; a lack of enunciation and projection plagued both Reece and Seebold, causing the audience to fight to hear what the two were discussing. We had no chance to care at all for Cain or his plight, which one assumes is Byron's intent; instead, we became disenchanted and, finally, disinterested. If Seebold had taken a purely directorial role in this production, such shortcomings as an ineffective interpretation of the character of Cain and poor projection by the actors may have been remedied.
Director Seebold has missed a fine chance to bring to light a long-studied argument between this pair of brothers, which could have been multifaceted and deep. The central discussion, between Lucifer and Cain, needs to be a stimulating examination of Cain's railing against what, to him, is a colorless, uninhabited, and uncaring universe. Unfortunately, this production doesn't effectively communicate Byron's argument that Man faces life as what can become a small and unheard voice in a gigantic and pitiless cosmos, an existential flame in a cosmic windstorm. Consequently, this production does not succeed in relaying the playwright's intent of giving some meaning to what seems to be a pitiless and confounding murder.
Cain continues through Sunday, March 20. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.