Through Saturday, August 12
Ward Theatre, Durham

To be clear, Ward Theatre Company’s production of psychological drama Honour is no thriller or murder mystery. But early on, its almost-title character, a middle-aged writer and poet named Honor Spencer (Nancy Ellis), makes it clear that a literary imagination is nothing to be trifled with. The first hint comes as Claudia (Katie Sheffield), an aggressively ambitious young journalist, interviews Honor for a story on her husband, Gus (Tom Stackhouse), a veteran journalist. Writing, Honor asserts, involves toughness and watchfulness: “As Graham Greene said, ‘In every writer, a chip of ice.’”

We feel that sharp analytical chill on several occasions after Gus tells Honor he’s leaving her for Claudia, ending a thirty-two-year marriage. “I feel as if I’m dying, and I’m not ready to die yet,” he says. Honor considers the remark and the man before offering a cool response: “What a shame.”

Just enough words and deeds follow to demonstrate that, when someone sees deeper into the human psyche than you do, it’s unwise to quickly renounce all claims to her sanctuary or hospitality. But playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s potentially prosaic narrative of marital infidelity and betrayal extends into a clear-eyed investigation of how differently millennial women measure the worth of their relationships and careers than previous generations did.

Despite Claudia’s emotional blind spots, Honor ultimately must acknowledge the direct challenges she raises about her choices in her literary and domestic life. It rings true when Claudia improbably tells Honor’s daughter, Sophie (Alexandra Petkus), that she believes the breakup is saving Honor’s life. But the exceedingly tough love cuts both ways when Claudia cannot begin to answer Honor’s incisive questions about the human heart. Never challenge a poet on her native ground.

Unfortunately, a directorial miscalculation or two mars this inquiry into modern relationships. In her successful attempt to avoid garish emotional overstatements, director Wendy Ward overcorrects Stackhouse and Sheffield toward performances that remain too internalized. After almost mechanically trading lines in the fourth scene, Gus never found adequate emotional bandwidth in the show we saw. Though he and Claudia conspicuously refer to passion as the mainspring of their relationship, we see precious little of it on stage. Only Ellis and Petkus effectively escape the dampening minimalism.

It’s truly innovative when Honor’s daughter, away at college, gets the news about her family’s breakup via Skype. But telltale lags in the dialogue during scenes with her projected character attested to a technical or timing glitch with prerecorded video. Jean Synodinos’s soulful original songs deftly underscore relationship dynamics, and the set design transforms the studio into an intimate upscale living room. But this honorable effort works more on an intellectual level than an emotional one.