Twentieth century French philosopher and Nobel laureate Jean-Paul Sartre wrote one of his signal works, No Exit (Huis Clos), in 1944. Seven decades later, Pequod Productions shows the play’s existential view of individual freedom and commitment to a meaningful life is still fresh and thought provoking.

The play takes place in Hell – in this case a windowless room with Second Empire furnishings. A valet shows three people into the room, one at a time. First is Garcin, an adulterer who fled from his military duty but was caught and executed. Second is Inez, a lesbian postal clerk who convinced the woman she was interested in to turn against her husband and murder him. Estelle is the last to enter, a well-to-do woman who married for money, then had an affair that produced a child, whom she drowned, causing its father to commit suicide.

At first, they all deny any wrongdoing. But, as they question each other’s motives for their actions on Earth, it becomes plain they have been put together to torture each other. The play’s famous phrase, “Hell is other people,” is often misinterpreted. Sartre’s meaning is that other people’s opinions of your actions in life can be allowed to define you, limiting your freedom to exist as you wish.

Because of the play’s deeply philosophical message, many productions are intensely serious, while others often employ gallows humor for the ironic situation. Triangle actor and theatre critic Kurt Benrud has directed this production as farcical comedy, finding many outright laughs, both from dialogue interpretation and from physical humor. He’s kept the pacing tight and the blocking constantly varied. While this approach has its rewards, it also reduces the impact of the work.

On opening night, the actors each were working in a different mode, making the presentation uneven. Best was Melanie Simmons’ Estelle, her feigned innocence, her disgust with Inez’s come-ons, and her attempts to attract Garcin were nuanced and amusing, despite some Kewpie-doll characteristics. She also impressively conveyed fear, sadness, and not a little insanity in various visions of her past.

Joanna Herath’s haughtiness and pithy ripostes as Inez created a formidable character. But she’s been asked to play Inez as an over-the-top caricature, complete with a constant little laugh after almost ever line. Thom Haynes’ quiet realism put him at lower wattage than the other two, hampered by a rapid delivery that didn’t allow for natural transitions of mood and feeling. Angela Callahan confidently portrayed the valet as a smiling robot.

Only in the last third of the 90-minute one-act, with everyone literally at each other’s throat, did the cast and director respond with a visceral reality that was missing from the other two-thirds.

The staging at Cary’s Page-Walker Arts & History Center takes advantage of the third floor gallery space by placing the audience inside the room with the characters, viewing the action from a single line of chairs around the room’s perimeter. The room’s regular lighting is used, allowing audience members to easily see each other’s reactions (and to judge them, just as the characters do to each other in the play).

The room’s three windows have been covered by large columns to meet the script’s requirements, but they are used for an unnecessary effect, lighting up to reveal various cutouts in silhouette that represent the characters’ visions of their past. Not only is it distracting, but it also undercuts the actors’ attempts to create those visions with just words.

Kurt Benrud initiated Pequod Productions 25 years ago to produce several plays. It then lay dormant until resurrected for this presentation as well as for an annual reading of Shakespeare’s complete sonnets. No Exit co-producer, Thom Haynes, is the one who suggested the play to Benrud, and, from their own statements, it’s been a friends and family affair. Sartre’s script still has the power to intrigue and stimulate, which comes through in this production, despite its several liabilities.

No Exit continues through Sunday, March 25. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.