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Picture hell. For those who live in Pacific Beach and work nine-to-five jobs, hell arrives every Thursday afternoon. College students schedule their classes Monday through Thursday. Come that afternoon, especially in the “Kill Zone” around Mission Boulevard, music gets loud. Then choruses of popped tops and cries of “yaaaaa, dude!” herald yet another four-day blow.

PB hell is cyclical. The forever-after variety comes from the Bible via Dante’s Inferno: crackling flames, impish demons prodding pitchforks, flaming lakes, the damned screaming as if all the prisons in the world let out an everlasting howl.

In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre envisioned a hell without God. His characters sin and are punished, but the torments aren’t medieval horrors. In fact, compared to Hades, Sheol, the underworld, or Dante, Sartre’s hell looks downright doable, at first.

It’s a drawing room furnished in the Second French Empire style: a chair and two divans, a marble statue on the mantel. The colors clash, especially the red and spinach-green divans, but that seems minor. The building’s like a hotel. It has at least three stories and many rooms, even a valet — some sort of minimum-security hell, you imagine, as if whatever power sends people here is soft on sin.

For Diversionary Theatre, scenic designer Jungah Han papers the walls, window, and fireplace with garish, white and grayish-beige stripes. Even these don’t look so bad until you realize that Sartre’s people will see them for all time. And they will never sleep. And will always have their eyes open. And must be together 24/7. Then the stripes become bars and the room a cage from which there is no exit.

Sartre believed that existence has no Creator, no predetermined plan (“everything that exists is born for no reason”). Because of that, we are “condemned to be free.” We must make choices authentic to our being: “live our own words, speak our own actions.” The opinions of others, which try to stick to us like glue, should never define us. If we let them, then we are no longer “real.”

No Exit premiered a month before D-Day. Germany occupied France and, if Nazi rhetoric were true, would for another thousand years. The times became a stern test for followers of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. Given German tanks in the streets and swastikas everywhere, abandoning one’s inner self to the oppressor, even temporarily, may have seemed a reasonable temptation. But for Sartre, who detested limits and authority, there are no second chances. His three damned characters in No Exit gave up their right to choose. And when they abandoned the power to define their future, they were damned to hell.

Cradeau, a pacifist journalist; Inez, a postal clerk; and Estelle, a young society woman, don’t resemble candidates for fire and brimstone. They admit to wrongdoing, some: Cradeau was executed for his antiwar beliefs, he says; Estelle’s foggy about causes, but there was a mysterious death in her past. Inez, however, sees through their social guises. Cradeau’s a coward, Estelle’s a murderer, and Inez admits she needs to “see people suffer to exist at all.” This room is no mistake, she says. Everything’s been planned, down to the clashing colors. This place is real, she says, because we haven’t been.

They call death “absence.” The euphemism is apt because they abandoned their authentic beings and need the opinions of others for self-validation.

As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that even if there is no divine plan in Sartre’s universe, whoever designed this room, this hell, did so in minute detail: everything’s tailored for these particular inhabitants, tailored for friction (but if nothing is preplanned, Mr. Sartre, and if there is no omniscient deity, what sort of afterlife designer could do that?). Once Cradeau, Inez, and Estelle learn the other’s faults, however, they use them like negative reflections to assault their cellmates. And the windowless, mirrorless room becomes a ménage à monsters.

The Diversionary production makes a game go with difficult material. Director Esther Emery treats the play as a period piece. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’s telling costumes evoke spring 1944 — as does Estelle’s blond wig, with twin cornucopias over her eyebrows.

The acting style’s mid-’40s as well. Steven Lone’s Cradeau displays a slick leading-man appeal; Rhianna Basore’s Estelle, ingénue naïveté; Monique Gaffney’s Inez, an arch toughness (and Bette Davis eyes). They begin as if in a movie from the period, playing prescribed roles. These are the people they wanted to be like. Then, like wax melting in extreme heat, hell slowly peels away veneers. Cradeau, Inez, and Estelle become not themselves but what Sartre called “the Other,” which is everyone outside an authentic self. Cradeau utters the famous line, “Hell is other people” (“L’enfer, c’est les autres”). But this doesn’t mean it’s you hounded by everyone else. In Sartre’s hell, you don’t exist at all: you are merely other people against other people.

No Exit, by Jean-Paul Sartre
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Directed by Esther Emery; cast: Steven Lone, Kevin Morrison, Monique Gaffney, Rhianna Basore; scenic design, Jungah Han; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; lighting, Jason Bieber; wig, hair, and sound design, Missy Bradstreet.
Playing through October 5; Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-220-0097.

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