At last, Thom Pain’s back in town

Will Eno's startling, wryly funny, deeply moving play returns with a memorable performance by Todd Van Voris for the new Crave Theatre

At long last, Thom Pain is back in town.

That is to say, Thom Pain (based on nothing), a marvelous, many-faceted monologue by the playwright Will Eno, is running through June 11 at the Shoe Box Theatre, in a smart, spare production featuring the resurgent Portland acting star Todd Van Voris in a performance that’s wryly funny and deeply moving. This is one of those small, theater-lovers’ passion projects that pop up now and again and make for something truly memorable. And this one has been, in a certain way, a long time coming.

Todd Van Voris in “Thom Pain (based on nothing).” Photo: Russell J Young

Thom Pain, a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2005, first showed up in Portland a few years later. Devon Allen of the Portland State University faculty directed her former student, Matt DiBiasio, in the role at a small campus theater. But because of the location, perhaps, and that the production took place amid the busy weeks of the Fertile Ground festival, the show largely was overlooked. I caught it only at the end of the run, but have been forever grateful that Allen talked me into attending. It remains one of the most remarkable performances I’ve seen on a Portland stage  — intense and discomfiting, desperate and controlled, awkward and awe-inspiring. Allen and DiBiasio remounted the show again several months afterward, in November 2008, at a much larger venue, the Kingstad Center in Beaverton, but again, location may have kept it from being as widely seen as it deserved.

A few years later, Jerry Mouawad of Imago told me that he was very interested in doing Thom Pain but seemed discouraged when I told him the show already had been produced in town. According to Van Voris, he had brought the play to Imago, suggesting that Mouawad direct him in it, but Mouawad was so intrigued by the script that he wanted the role for himself.

Photo: Russell J Young

Further down the line a bit, DiBiasio worked at Imago in Mishima’s Black Lizard and other plays, and began asking about reviving his Thom Pain there. Meanwhile, Van Voris and a young fledgling director, Sarah Andrews, whose work in Portland theater mostly has been in properties design, raised money for this production as the launch to a new project company called Crave Theatre.

Thom Pain is, after all, a strangely compelling character. Not connected at all with the Revolutionary-era pamphleteer Thomas Paine, the name appears to be a reference to the emotional pain that defines much of the human condition (at least in the playwright’s deep-blue worldview) and is the beginning of the layered whorls of wordplay that make up much of Eno’s script.

Dressed in a simple black suit and tie fit for either a no-nonsense businessman or an undertaker, Thom addresses the audience directly in a manner that could be a Steven Wright stand-up routine as re-written by Samuel Beckett, or perhaps just the weirdest motivational speaker you’ve ever seen.

His highly circuitous tale, full of feints and asides and evasions, revolves (or, rather, orbits at varying distances) around a boy whose dog dies in a horrific accident, and who eventually grows up to have a fitful and perhaps scarring relationship with a woman.

Ah, that’s life.

“How terrible a god is love? He bruises, tortures, abandons us,” Thom muses at one point. Or at another: “Reality is funny sometimes. Other times, not so much.”

The play opens in darkness, as Thom says to the audience, “How nice to see you all.” That’s a typical trope, among many, here, but Eno’s not just being clever-clever. Thom Pain is a man yearning to make connection — to see and be seen — yet feels himself flummoxed again and again by his particular personal limitations and by the unavoidable difficulties of human interactions and emotions. He is, in a sense, in the dark about it all. Sometimes he rails against this fact, sometimes he ignores its obvious hold on him, sometimes he tries to play tricks with the truth in hopes of winning some momentary advantage, sometimes he just goes for full-on-irony.

As DiBiasio played this part, Thom Pain was an outsider, someone so stiffly ill-at-ease in his own body and in the world that his reaching for and rebuffing of connection represented the part in all of us (I’m guessing) that feels like we don’t belong.

Van Voris is one of the most powerful and subtle actors this city has to offer, but I wondered initially, when I learned he’d be performing this, if he was simply too charming for the part, too naturally engaging and likeable for Thom’s existential/emotional anguish. A fundraising reading a few months ago, in which the laughter flowed but the darker tones languished, added to this expectation. But through rehearsals, Van Voris has found a different angle on the character than DiBiasio’s, less estranged and off-putting, something closer to normal. This Thom Pain IS charming, kind of; maybe almost sort-of sometimes happy, possibly.

Photo: Russell J Young

This “feeling thing in a wordy body” uses language and logic as shield and sword, and as a dozen magic tricks up his sleeve, and there’s a kind of push/pull dynamic to his relation with the audience.

Yet, where DiBiasio was shifty, at times snide or menacing, his yearning edging into sweaty desperation, Van Voris is gently ironic, conflicted, ingratiating, quieter and more volcanic, more like us and somehow more broken. His command of the emotional rhythm of the script is fantastic, especially in a handful of long, weighted pauses that add to an overall effect that had me in tears at several points.

It’s a complex and challenging piece, to be sure, but Van Voris and Andrews have nailed it; not necessarily more so or less than DiBiasio and Allen (that production will forever be in my Theater Memories Hall of Fame) but just as meaningfully.

Really, folks: Don’t miss this one.


Crave Theatre’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) continues through June 11 at the Shoe Box Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.


One Response.

  1. I saw that original PSU production too and agree completely: unforgettable!

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