Jean-Paul Sartre’s vision of hell was a Second Empire-style room with three disparate souls trapped together for an eternity. The mid-20th-century existentialist philosopher and playwright penned “No Exit,” a play that takes place in this vision during Germany’s occupation of France, his homeland, as a rebuke and a study of freedom and free will, passivity and action, and coping under unthinkable duress.
Live Garra Theatre, a resident company of the Theatre Consortium of Silver Spring, brings a multicultural cast to an updated version of the thought-provoking one-act, which aligns with its mission to illuminate all facets of a multicultural society. “It’s a very powerful piece,” said Wanda Whiteside, Live Garra’s founding artistic director, who calls the play that premiered in 1944 a classic.
Sartre’s premise confines three distinct characters in a room together – Garcin, a journalist and pacifist; Inez, a postal clerk who seduced a friend’s wife; Estelle, who also had an illicit affair; plus the valet, the devil’s doorman. Each died an untimely death and trapped together they lie, confess, bicker and make their eternal afterlife hellish.
Whiteside explained why she was interested in “No Exit” at this moment and it’s not what you might expect. For most, the play is best known for its line, “Hell is other people.” While many understand the quote at face value – that people make each other miserable, for Sartre, this precept of existentialism means something else. The French philosopher posited that we can’t escape the regard of others, which causes us to pass judgment on ourselves; that is, we never feel good about ourselves because we’re always obsessed with how others think of us. This is the Sartrian torture we see play out in “No Exit” – and, for Sartre, in our lives.
Whiteside has a different, more positive take: “John Paul Sartre’s piece is about three people who come together to find some sort of redemption from things that have happened to them in their lives. In order to do that, they have to give and take and love and find redemption for each other …. That’s their charge, even though they’re in hell. That’s what they still have to do – life — and death — go on.”
Accompanying the play, Whiteside has devised ways for the audience to participate to connect more deeply with the characters and the themes. “I want the audience to feel as though they are in the room and there’s no escape for them as well,” she said.
She explained: “There will be clues given throughout the evening. I don’t want to give away too much, but the audience can play along if they want. The audience gets clues from the dialogue and character traits. As they solve the puzzle, they allow for the characters to receive redemption from their acts on earth. They are released and are forgiven … and can finally rest in hell in peace. The audience gets absolved as well, and allowed to escape their self-imposed confinement.”
Additionally, on two nights – Nov. 17 and 24 — Live Garra will something completely different: “The Great Escape Room.” An escape room experience that plays out on the actual “No Exit” set. “People who see the play can buy tickets and come back and be part of the escape room,” Whiteside said.
While Whiteside admitted she has never been to an escape room herself, she said, “I’m just really excited about the project. It’s going to be unique … and I think people are going to be fascinated by it.”
She continued: “They should come and experience ‘No Exit’ and hell. But also heaven. When you really turn it all around, when you look at it from all angles, if we pull together, we’ll be okay. We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now, whether you like it or not.”
Ultimately, Whiteside sees “No Exit” as a play that can transcend its heavy philosophical reputation. “In order for this play to take people where I want them to go,” she said, “they’ve got to open their minds and open their hearts in order to transcend some of the ugliness, some of the hell that people put you through.”
Live Garra Theatre will present “No Exit” and “The Great Escape Room” from Nov. 15 to 24 at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. “No Exit” starts at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. “The Great Escape Room” is at 5 and 7 p.m. Sundays; tickets are $20. For “No Exit” tickets — $25 online; $30 at the door; students and seniors $20 — visit www.livegarratheatre.org or call 855-575-4834.