Theater companies—at least, theater companies more concerned with filling seats than artistic ambition—have an easy shortcut in December: do something cheerful that the entire family can enjoy. Bag&Baggage did not do that, or anything close to that, this year, and the result is everything that live theater should be.
Danny and The Deep Blue Sea isn’t, from what I can tell, written as a Christmas play, and it’s about the furthest thing from cheerful and family-friendly I can imagine. All the same, director TS McCormick’s production of the 1984 John Patrick Shanley play is visually set in the holidays. The titular Danny wears a Santa hat in the first act, which is set at a bar below a partially busted string of red and green lights.
The text of the play doesn’t mention the Holidays even once but the idea of Christmas—a time of year that brings people together—lingers over everything. This is the story of two deeply troubled individuals who feel alienated from their families and humanity. Christmas, for these characters, is yet another reminder of the life they don’t have and feel they don’t deserve.
None of this would work without the right actors, which this production absolutely has. Jayna Sweet, who recently moved to the Portland area from Los Angeles, plays the charming but guilt-ridden Roberta. Janelle Rae, in their second Bag&Baggage production this season, plays the titular Danny—a brooding man with a habit of getting into fistfights to avoid his feelings.
The chemistry between these two actors is electric, even as they talk over each other. The characters find something resembling comfort in each other despite reflexive self-sabotage, but there’s nothing saccharine about either performance. This is a brutal and intense production—one full of uncomfortable revelations juxtaposed with the occasional oasis of beauty. All of this is amplified by the small venue, which allows for an intimacy I can’t fully describe without spoiling things. The actors were just a few meters from my seat and I felt, multiple times, like I was violating their personal space. That, more than anything, speaks to how truthful both performances are.
I saw this show with friends who, despite living here for years, have yet to watch a Bag&baggage production. One asked me, after the play, if their shows are always this good—all I could say is yes. We are so fucking lucky to have Bag&Baggage in Hillsboro, and Portland is lucky to be just a MAX ride away.
The Vault Theater was mostly empty on the Saturday. If there’s any justice in the world that won’t be true the next two weeks. Go see this play (but probably not with your family).