Maybe it's OK to be lost in a play that's so well-written: to let yourself wander into rooms that seem to lead nowhere...


The Independent Eye, Old City Stage Works, 115 Arch St., through April 20, 925-2838.

In the 160 rooms of the house that munitions heiress Sophia Weatherlee is endlessly renovating (loosely based on the "Mystery" house of Sarah Winchester in San Jose, CA), there are staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open onto blank walls or that drop off into the void, and even a room or two without entrance or egress -- much of it uninhabitable, but all of it constructed with the most exquisite craftsmanship.

Much the same thing can be said for Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller's new play, Hammers. The craftsmanship (of language, character, plot and dramatic action) is exquisite; and there are rising actions that appear, at least, to take you nowhere, pathways that appear to lead to dead ends or that drop off inexplicably, spaces that appear to have no connection to the rest of it, that appear to have no way in and no way out.

All of these seemingly disconnected units, like the rooms in Sophia Weatherlee's house, are connected, if only by a map that even the architects can no longer read.

And unlike the house, the play is fully inhabited, though the characters, like tourists who have lost their tour guide and strayed from the roped-off path, get lost and trapped in the play's labyrinthine byways.

I, too, got lost more than a few times along the way, but here are some of the rooms I was able to glimpse through the open doors along the tour route: Sophia Weatherlee's compulsive building is an attempt to lay to rest the souls of the innocents killed by her father's weapons of destruction, to atone for the unspecified death of an unspecified child, to escape the smell of the dead kitten she had guiltily tried to hide in the closet. The endless sounds of hammering (the carpenters work around the clock in three shifts) are designed to drown out the sounds of crying she hears in the walls.

But the past is the future; the house, a cenotaph to memory, is destined to become a mecca for tourists. The voices that Miss Weatherlee hears in the walls are the voices of a Tour Guide (Michael Byrne) and the family of tourists he is escorting, who poke their masked faces and their cameras into the rooms and lives of Miss Weatherlee and her workers, the ghosts of the future haunting the past-haunted present.

There's another story inhabiting the other rooms of the play: of Chuck (Kevin Augustine), the blue-collar carpenter turned white-collar foreman and master contractor; Marty, the foreman he displaced (Eric Brunner); and Chuck's disgruntled wife Dee (Sonja Robson). And this story, too, has neglected and dead children, shattered lives, futures haunted by unfulfilled hopes, and lives and bodies lost in the maze and trapped in rooms without exit.

But while I know that the rooms connect, I sometimes felt as though I was lost without a map, abandoned by my tour guides.

I can see how Chuck's life is boxed in by the obsessive fears of Miss Weatherlee, and how her life is finally boxed in by his. And I can see how Marty's past becomes Chuck's future and Chuck's future becomes the Tour Guide's past, just as the tourists of the future become the voices of Miss Weatherlee's past.

But, mapless, I can't see the master plan, I can't (on a single viewing) see the structure keeping the rooms from collapsing into the basement.

This is, perhaps, because I'm still confused about where my tour guides are asking me to look. The premise of the play (and the magnetic presence of Fuller in the role) tells me that it should be Miss Weatherlee. But the much more interesting stories are those of Chuck (played with obsessive energy by Augustine, who, as in last year's Mine Alone, plays the most simultaneously likable and despicable blue-collar obsessives in Philadelphia theater) and even, more so, of Dee, whose definition of home (as a place in which you can own a waffle iron) undergoes the greatest set of changes over the course of the play.

But maybe it's OK to be lost in a play that's so well-written: to let yourself wander into rooms that seem to lead nowhere, and to be haunted by the characters and their haunted pasts, miserable presents, and inevitable futures.

The direction is by Bishop, and the incessant sound score (with wonderful sounds of squirrels and other little creatures scurrying in the woodwork) is by Fuller.

-- Cary M. Mazer