It is impossible to leave “Cleansed” unmoved.
The play, directed by senior Kate Donoghue and written by British “In-Yer-Face” playwright Sarah Kane, tells the story of inmates caught in a prisonlike sanitarium, ruled over by the Tinker (senior Chris Bakka), a sadistic man who serves as the place’s guard and doctor.
The play’s blunt approach to taboo subjects like rape, drug use, incest and torture may shock viewers, but that initial feeling should not blind the viewer to the story that is going on underneath.
“I think what Sarah Kane is telling is a beautiful love story,” Donoghue said. The play was originally inspired by the Roland Barths quote “being in love is like being in Auschwitz.” It should be no surprise then that it explores the sacrificial nature of love through three intertwining stories.
The main thread tells the story of Grace (sophomore Mya Kahler) who enters the compound to be closer to her dead brother, Graham (senior Alex Shi), whom she was in love with. His presence is still with her, but she becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming more like him.
At the same time, two inmates (junior Cole Atcheson and senior D’Angelo Smith) of the compound try to figure out what it means to be in love under the vicious eye of oppression.
In the third and most perplexing story line, the Tinker goes to a peep show to watch a girl who seems to be both Grace and not Grace. In these scenes, we see the potential for the Tinker to be deeper than the cruel man the audience has seen before.
Because the play cannot actually show the sex and violence called for in the script, Donoghue chose to suggest these actions through representational video and audio. This does not mean Donoghue pulls any punches, but instead uses these aspects to enhance the action’s expressive impact and implications.
Donoghue deftly handles the play’s emotional pull. She uses Kane’s words to push viewers to the edge of their seats, afraid of what might befall the characters next, still holding out the hope that it might not be as bad as what has already happened.
In one scene of the play, Grace and Graham sing “You Are My Sunshine.” On a surface level, the scene should be happy, a respite from the mad world that surrounds them, but instead it only makes even clearer the fact that happiness can be taken from them as quickly as it is given.
The acting in the play also strengthens this emotional connection. Sophomore Andrew Cook’s performance as Robin, a man who falls in love with Grace even as she is falling away from the world around her, was especially strong. His tragic innocence and simplicity makes the harshly complex world around him seems even darker.
Also strong was Kahler’s performance as Grace, doubling as the peep show dancer, which carried the emotional weight of the show with a delicate brokenness. Through both roles, Kahler is the conduit for a diverse majority of the play’s sexuality, which she does skillfully.
Slightly more difficult to catch a hold of was the character of the Tinker, who oscillated from his cruelty as a guard to his kindness and emotional vulnerability in his early scenes with Grace and the peep show dancer. Although Bakka plays both roles well, it was difficult to piece together the two characters into one whole.
Although it is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish of temperament, “Cleansed” is a unique look at love that poses questions about life that linger after the audience leaves the Tinker’s twisted world.