‘Blindness’ Review: Listening to the Sound of Theater Again

As Stevenson leans into her performance, we become stand-ins for the wife’s confidantes. Thanks to Ben and Max Ringham’s embracing sound design, the audio renders the actress unnervingly close: You can almost feel her breath on your ear as she whispers what she sees, and track her path around you as the sound bounces from one earpiece to another. I reflexively cringed when I heard the buzzing of flies, who seemed to flit around the outer curl of my ear.

As the character unravels, so does Stevenson, her voice growing breathy with desperation. In one scene, as a beastly group of blind men demand to be offered women in exchange for food, her raspy cry of “Monsters!” rises to a bone-chilling screech.

Stephens, a Tony Award winner for his stage adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” makes bold, sensible choices here, especially given the constraints of creating socially distanced theater. Yet this “Blindness” feels noticeably shorn of the most brilliant elements of Saramago’s novel. The lyric philosophizing about human nature is lost in translation, cut for Stevenson’s more direct narration. Other voices, already subdued in the book, disappear completely. Likewise, the indispensable commentary on how institutions let their people down falls by the wayside.

As soon as Stevenson utters the word “epidemic,” with a sharp British click on that “C,” the shadow of Covid-19 looms over the 70-minute play. But the coronavirus didn’t actually much come to my mind while there. This epidemic story felt too individual — too hurried, too isolated to one character, too negligent of the larger social narrative — to fully translate what we have experienced in the past year.

The production’s last minutes are abrupt, glossing over the last act of the tale in summary. It’s as though the show, produced in a world fighting a real pandemic, has no grasp yet on how the story of its fictional epidemic should conclude.

Instead of Saramago’s ending, Stephens reaches for an earlier scene that involves three women bathing in the rain. The change admirably centers the resilience of women in the story. But it ultimately feels like an empty gesture, given the ways the adaptation stints on the development of characters other than the doctor’s wife.

For someone like me, who had just read the novel, “Blindness” is more a sensory experience than a richly theatrical evocation; more than a fable about hope and humanity, it plays as a thrill for long-deprived ears and eyes.

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