A Bittersweet Wake
Tragi-comic look at love and death is bold but disjointed.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
You know those books you see where the author’s name is bigger than the title? The opening night of Falling: A Wake at the Carl Cherry Center was kind of like that.
The production marked the Magic Circle Theatre company’s return after a four-year absence. Before the performance, a volunteer introduced the play: “Welcome to a Magic Circle Theatre production… ” to cheers and claps from the audience. They hadn’t forgotten the former Carmel Valley theater company, which was known for bringing edgy, modern works like The Laramie Project to the Peninsula.
Falling: A Wake opens on a peaceful night scene in a remote field near a farm. It’s dark. Crickets chirp contentedly. Out of this reverie grows the jet-engine roar of a passing airplane, but that sound is swallowed up by an explosion. It’s a visceral opening, cleverly harnessing darkness and sound to enlist the imagination of the audience – like radio theater.
The noise rouses Elsie (Sandy Shephard) and Harold (Bob Colter), a past-middle-aged couple who live and work on the nearby farm.
Hastily dressed in the middle of the night – each wears the other’s coat – they investigate. Elsie thinks she sees a shooting star; Harold insists it’s likely a satellite. That early detail tips us off to the bigger dichotomy of the long-married couple. She’s spiritual, he’s rationalist. So what dilemma does Canadian playwright Gary Kirkham send his characters to wrestle with? Nothing less than love and death. (The play was inspired by the death of Kirkham’s best friend in the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 plane explosion over Lockerbie, Scotland.)
Harold and Elsie come to a patch of field littered with airplane debris – a cross between a scrap yard and a graveyard. But their most significant find is surreal: a fully intact airplane seat, sitting upright, facing away from the audience, with a young man still sitting in it.
Is he dead? That question doesn’t get settled for a long time and hangs up some of the ensuing momentum. Yes, he’s dead (the play’s title hints at that). But the real question, the one Kirkham wants to know is: “Now what?”
While Harold pragmatically decides to look around for more fallen passengers, Elsie talks to the dead man, whom she calls “a boy,” first apologizing for his untimely demise.
“I’d like to think you’re still here,” she tells him. “It would be nice. If that were the way things go.”
She ruminates further: “If I die… that’s silly. When I die, I’ll be hanging around. Like the wind.”
It’s a wistful monologue, one that’s primal to human existence. But she’s not making the inquiry out of narcissism; it comes from a deep, painful place.
As this heavy brew starts to simmer, Kirkham adds humor – dark, ticklish and sly. As the couple fall into a routine spat, she throws an aside to the dead boy: “Don’t mind us.”
The humor also fends off the schmaltz, which the couple veers close to at times, as during their two or three snuggle sessions. But there’s enough rough-natured ribbing to wrench it away from over-sentimentality. Barely.
Elsie and Harold’s marriage is enviably solid, laced with wisecracks, and cushioned with a mutual respect. Elsie plays a game with Harold in which she uses malapropisms to frustrate and tease him: “Nevada” instead of “Nebula,” “Astrologer” instead of “Astronomer.” Shephard plays her ditzy with a foundation of intellectual curiosity. Her facial expressions are pliable, if at times hammy.
A one-time math professor, Harold is gruff but doting, secretly pleased with his wife’s flightiness and flights of fancy. Colter plays him a bit closed, like the academic he’s supposed to be, with flashes of compassion and humor that don’t come off as contradictory.
Without giving away secrets, one of the key plot points commandeers the tone of the play, at times adding a tragic hue to the proceedings. But the feisty funny bits keep coming back, easing the potential morbidity.
Through dialogue, monologue and an odd bond that grows between the couple and the boy that was aptly described by another reviewer as “psychotherapy,” actors Shephard and Coulter paint a vivid portait of a partnership.
It’s been 20 years since the death of playwright Kirkham’s friend aboard Pan Am Flight 103. Maybe the years have allowed laughter to leaven the ordeal. This play which wrings more questions than answers out of its examination of death, love and marriage, alternates between grim tragedy and blithe comedy.
Rabbit Hole, a recent Western Stage production that explored many of the same themes, did the same, to more powerful effect. But the audience at Falling’s opening night seemed especially buoyed not by the decent relatively obscure play, but by the resurrection of a cherished Peninsula creative force in Magic Circle Theatre. Their reputation has not lost much luster in their absence. Hopefully, the prodigal theater company will find works that match the daring and depth their reputation was founded on.
FALLING: A WAKE plays 7:30pm Friday and Saturday, 2pm Sunday, at Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. $22/general; $18/seniors and students. 659-1108, 624-7491, www.carlcherrycenter.org