Failure: A Love Story
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Coeurage Theatre Company
Through Aug. 29
One truthful takeaway (amongst many) of playwright Philip Dawkins’s beautifully wistful and charming tour de force is this: Everyone you love will probably die. In fact, take out that “probably.” Everyone you love will die and, in this work of slapstick tragedy, you can either be a grump about it, or you can just live your life as hard as you can and not worry about it.
Death is the unseen but omnipresent main character of the play. And yet, despite this downbeat theme, Dawkins crafts a warm-hearted piece that’s as kind and as funny as you could imagine. It’s a eccentric, character-driven work of whimsy that really is about living as hard as you can, as it is about the more brutal notion of media vita in morte sumus.
The play opens with a chorus telling us how each of the work’s main characters are going to die and then asks the question, “If you knew how long you had, would you be able to live your life?” Indeed, our knowledge that the cast of delightful characters only have ridiculously finite timespans indefinably flavors our awareness of them. Scenes meant to be upbeat and cheerful are just that — but they are also inevitably suffused with melancholy. Even so, director Michael Matthews’s blithe-hearted staging is all about good feelings, high-spirited atmospherics, and celebration.
The story tells the lives of three sisters and their ill-fated parents, living in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago, beautifully realized through JR Bruce’s sweetly cluttered set, Allison Dillard’s personable costumes, and periodically punctuated by pianist and music director Gregory Nabours’s perfectly placed period musical numbers. It is a peculiar theme of Dawkins’s play that death occurs at the very moment when the characters are at their happiest and most fulfilled. The family’s parents (Gina Torrecilla, Neil Taffe) are tootling about in their brand new automobile on a lovely Spring day, when they witness a boating accident that unexpectedly causes their own deaths.
Shortly after this, the parents’ three daughters are picked off one by one. Youngest daughter Nelly (Margaret Katch) falls in love with her dream man, handsome aspiring tycoon Mortimer (Kurt Quinn), but on their very wedding day, she perishes in a horrific freak accident. Mortimer then becomes involved with Nelly’s older sister Jenny June (Nicole Shalhoub), but on the eve of her greatest athletic triumph, she also dies unexpectedly – and the oldest sister, more emotionally tough Gertrude (June Carryl) succumbs to consumption, which she catches while trying to save Mortimer’s life. What is left for the survivors who must go on without their loved ones?
Dawkins’s playful writing style and narrative adroitly mix heaping servings of Thornton Wilder, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Edward Gorey, and the play itself comes across as a portrait of early 20th century America, complete with the immutable fact that all its inhabitants have faded into memory. Director Matthews’s production possesses an extremely evocative mood; we constantly are aware that the artifice of much of the stagecraft relates to the way our memories store experience (from death backwards to happiness).
An unexpected tone of playfulness is provided by Nabours’s astutely chosen and playfully performed musical numbers -– as also by an ensemble of performers who steadfastly refuse to descend into the sorrow that the events should force on the characters. Instead, the work constantly treads the surface of a gently comic mood. As the idealistic, bubbly Nell, Katch is a charming ingénue – and she’s matched by Carryl’s more brittle, but still wonderfully vulnerable Gertrude. Joe Calarco, portraying the sisters’ emotionally damaged adopted younger brother, offers a standout turn of beautiful sadness. Quinn’s nicely boyish Mortimer is quite likable as well. A deceptively delicate story with unexpected layers of sophisticated meaning, this play’s philosophical mix of comedy and ennui lasts long after the curtain call.
Coeurage Theatre Company, 1111b W. Clark, Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Aug. 29, http://coeurage.org/tickets