At the Vanishing Point
Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 9

Manbites Dog Theater has been a mainstay of Durham and Triangle culture through many years of adventurous theater, but rarely has the company brought us a script as beautiful as Naomi Iizuka’s At the Vanishing Point, which closes out the company’s 20th season. As directed by company co-founder and artistic director Jeff Storer, the play is a moving meditation on sight and seeing, loss and memory, family and community, art and death.

Based loosely on the life and work of photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, the play premiered in 2004 in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., where it is set. The Louisville that hosts festivals of new American plays can bear little resemblance to the Butchertown section of Louisville that Meatyard would have known between his birth in 1925 and his death in 1972but by the alchemy of art, that vanished time and place are returned to us in this series of sketches. And just as we may see something in a photograph that we missed in real life, the play picks out for us, from the struggle and stench of that hog-killing neighborhood, the sweetness and strength and love of its inhabitants.

This is a storytelling play, not an action-driven plot, but it is hardly static. The script structure of overlapping arcs floats through time like a hawk circling over a river: One feels the gentle, irreversible passing of time and life, and its equally inevitable, if shadowed, return in memory, photographs and artifacts. At the Vanishing Point, in the Manbites Dog production, is as satisfying visually and aurally as it is verbally. A spare but eloquent stage set by Jonathan Blackwell offers surfaces for the projection of Meatyard-styled photographs by Alan Dehmer, and these almost mystical images help take us into the mind of The Photographer and help us to understand his eloquent disquisition on seeing and understanding. Sound designer Adam Sampieri has created a rich, eclectic score, some of which is performed on stage by violinist and vocalist Eliza Bagg.

The play’s first section belongs entirely to The Photographer, who introduces the other characters and sets up the story fragments for them to build on. Most of the small cast appear in two or more roles, but The Photographer, played by Derrick Ivey, is himself alone. He was entrancing from his first words, and his blend of delicate feeling, obsessive ordering and visual philosophizing were most satisfying. He lays out the big ideas of the play: What one sees depends, always, on who one is and the context one brings; sometimes seeing clearly is too painful; looking is not the same as seeing; really seeing involves a spiritual openness. He also explores the relationships between seeing and memory and photography. Another underlying theme is the longed-for banishment of deathby memory and by the sheer force of life’s desire. Iizuka uses the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to remind us that death’s bargain with us takes the body, but leaves us the memories, the photographs, the artifactslike Thomas Edison’s shoes.

If you have been thinking this all sounds much too serious, be easy, for now enters Michael O’Foghludha, master of the comic decoration in a poignant scene. He is very touching as Pete Henzel, who has lost his job down at the slaughterhouse due to some unspecified failure of imagination on the part of managementjust like Edison lost his jobs before he made his great inventions. Pete carries Edison artifacts around in an attaché case, like holy relics. With him, the spiraling of story about friends and relations in this small town continues, and we begin to see the picture a little differently.

And so it continues, with the wonderful actress Marcia Edmundson giving us four vivid characters so different one can hardly realize that the same woman is playing them all. David Berberian can’t do much to change his large and definite form, but his two characters are well differentiated and very touching. His speech about having to kill a bird to really understand it and be able to paint it was given so entirely without irony that if felt like a blow to the heart. Surely every artist must quail before this blunt equation. We must have art to live, but something must die for the art.

The rest of the cast is strong, as well. Madeleine Lambert is very attractive as the blind girl Nora, as is Claire Catotti as the younger version of that character. Catotti, Garrett M. Stein-Seroussi and Jonah Klever all play multiple child-roles, although much of their “acting” involves running around the stage to little purpose. It wasn’t distracting, but it was the one element that didn’t seem necessary in Storer’s clean, warm, beautifully paced production of a very intelligent play.