“That’s not our fate,” says one character in an attempt to reassure another in Sam Shepard’s dark and opaque version of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. The play is fascinated by the human desire to determine or deny one’s own fate, exploring how an uninterrupted blood trail of tragedy can stretch through generations.
There are two complementary storylines: one, seemingly, set long ago and elsewhere, and one set in the American Southwest in the present day, though time and setting are quite flexible constructs here: the ancient is quite modern and the reverse is equally true. More important to A Particle of Dread than the specifics of time and location is the idea of inescapably fate, something both storylines share.
King Laius consults a prophet about his and his wife’s troubles in conceiving a child. After reading the signs of bones and bloody intestines, the prophet reveals to him the crux of the Oedipus story: they are better off barren because any child they have will be fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The two have a son, but terror gets the best of the king so he disposes of the infant in a barren land, hanging him from a tree by a pierced ankle so that he bleeds to death. But of course these attempts to elude prophesy play directly into the hands of fate.
As the Oedipus story unfolds sporadically and intermittently, we also meet a contemporary middle-aged American couple Otto and Jocelyn (played by Stephen Rea and Brid Brennan, pulling double-duty, as do most of the principle performers in Nancy Meckler’s production) who live a quiet suburban life, talking about current events over breakfast. On this day Otto reads a newspaper story about a gruesome crime at a crossroads not far from their home where a hitchhiker seems to have killed three men by running them over repeatedly with their own car.
This murder unites the play’s two storylines; it is an event that seems to belong to them both. As Oedipus/Otto, Jocasta/Jocelyn, Antigone/Annalee and others swirl in and out of our presence, and time and chronology become more and more arbitrary, the one thing that stays constant is this brutal and gruesome crime; it grounds all other elements of the play and all of the characters are touched by its aftershocks.
Commissioned and produced by Ireland’s Field Day Theatre Company (an artistic endeavor cofounded in 1980 by Rea and the great Irish playwright Brian Friel), A Particle of Dread explores the ways in which crimes of the father are visited upon the son and the generations to follow. The Greek sense of fate is not simply a notion of predetermination. It is equally bound up with the notation of hereditary crimes, that something in the blood remembers the things which happened generations ago.
The writing is both lyrical and quotidian, vivid and opaque. The play invites us into the particulars of its plot, but it also constantly reminds us that these events are far less significant than the universal forces of fate and tragedy. A marvelous cast is anchored by a powerful performance by Rea, a performance both resigned and urgent. As Oedipus, he travels through hubris, dread, and recognition, but it’s his portrayal of Otto which really resonates and fully encapsulates the play’s central concerns.