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Reviewed by:
  • Blindness
  • Theresa Smalec
BLINDNESS. Based on the novel by José Sara-mago, adapted by Simon Stephens. Directed by Walter Meierjohann. Daryl Roth Theatre, New York City. April 10, 2021.

I saw Blindness, the first in-person production to open in New York after the yearlong shuttering of theatres forced by COVID-19, on a spring day bustling with people. The city’s apparent normalcy made it easy to “forget” that over 10,000 residents had died of the virus in April 2020 alone, with roughly 35,000 total deaths. Walter Meierjohann’s actor-less audio play about an epidemic of blindness that turned a nation into sightless brutes was narrated by the recorded voice of British actor Juliet Stevenson (Blindness premiered in London). Stevenson recounted the contagion’s dehumanizing effects in the first person, as a character in the play: the wife of an ophthalmologist at a clinic where it began. This wife, who had also worked at the clinic, told us that patients described their blindness as a “thick paste of snowy whiteness.” Her reference to whiteness abruptly jogged my memories of the racial and economic disparities that influenced COVID-related deaths in New York City. While I hoarded toilet paper, my students in the Bronx fell ill. Some lost family. Some joined our Zoom meetings from jobs as essential workers while I taught safely from home. Contrary to New York Times critic Maya Phillips, who claimed Blindness felt “too negligent of the larger social narrative to fully translate what we experienced in the past year,” I thought the play’s multisensory plunge into the plight of a sightless nation challenged privileged audiences (tickets were $116 per pair) to recognize our complicity in the Trump administration’s blinkered, inequitable nonresponse to COVID-19. The narrator/wife was (apparently) the only character who did not lose sight during the pandemic; her resilient vision raised provocative questions about the source of her immunity. Key moments in the drama also made me wonder if others had truly gone blind, or just opted to look away.

Any social commentary to grow from Blindness must start with Meierjohann’s use of space, lighting, and recorded sound. Before COVID, directors often deployed such elements to disrupt traditional theatre by staging site-specific pieces or having actors lip-sync recordings of absent others. Here, due to New York’s reopening restrictions, space, light, and sound became necessary surrogates for live performers. There was no formal stage; instead, designer Lizzie Clachan arranged pairs of seats in socially distanced rows throughout the space, where the audience sat. Some pairs of seats faced others like cars at an intersection. Aptly, this was where the action began. Stevenson, the unseen narrator to whom we listened on individual, sterilized headphones provided by the theatre, described traffic waiting for a light change. Red, orange, and green neon tubes hung above us. We saw the lights turn green, but Stephenson said that a car (which we could not see) blocked the road. Her voice shifted from calm, to puzzled, to horrified as she recalled the words the traumatized driver kept repeating when onlookers finally pulled him from his car: “I’ve gone blind!”

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Audiences experience Blindness. (Photo: Helen Maybanks.)

From there, Blindness unleashed reminders of the blatant deception and social upheaval that prevailed in 2020, slowly integrating the audience into the plot. [End Page 551]

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Audiences experience Blindness. (Photo: Helen Maybanks.)

The narrator told us that the blind man’s fiancée took him to an ophthalmologist, who determined nothing physically wrong. Yet, almost everyone with whom he interacted soon contracted the debilitating whiteness, even the eye doctor. When the latter warned of a looming pandemic, government officials countered there was no proof, no need for alarm. This scene conjured Trump’s chilling admission to Bob Woodward that he knew how serious COVID-19 was early on, but publicly minimized the risks for the sake of business as usual.

As with COVID, the situation lurched from unlikely to full panic. The worried narrator confided that her husband had received a call from “The Ministry” directing him to...


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pp. 551-553
Launched on MUSE
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