Matthew Reddin

“A Time to Live” succeeds with simplicity

Windfall's world premiere, by Howard Goldstein, is a portrait of a couple trying to live in the moment after one stops her cancer treatment.

By - Feb 16th, 2013 01:06 pm

Beth Monhollen and Christopher Elst play Madeline and Richard, a couple coping with her decision to stop her cancer treatment, in “A Time to Live.” Photo credit Windfall Theatre.

Milwaukee doesn’t see a ton of world-premiere shows in a given season, so A Time to Live, at Windfall Theatre, has high expectations built in. The play, written by local author Howard Goldstein, has heavy subject matter too: it follows Madeline and Richard (Beth Monhollen and Christopher Elst) a newly married couple whose lives have been upended by the discovery that Madeline has cancer. As the play begins, she has chosen to give up on chemo treatments, preferring instead to live out the rest of her days as best she can.

It’s a set-up that doesn’t lend itself to being a play in the traditional sense. There are no rises and falls in the action, only a long fall sometimes delayed. The inciting incident that sparks the action has occurred offscreen, and the whole play feels like one long denouement.

But this not-quite-a-play – a portrait, perhaps – has a poetry all its own. Goldstein and director Carol Zippel have brought us something a traditional play – with a clearly defined rising action, narrative beats, throughline, climax, etc. – might not have been able to provide with such simplicity: an honest, unpretentious look at a couple forced to live through dying earlier than they ever could have imagined.

The script begins less effective than it becomes. For the first 20 minutes or so, its dialogue can feel stilted, Madeline and Richard using words and phrases that seem calibrated specifically to remind us they’re just actors. One long exchange in the first scene is particularly grating, Madeline taking turns between “remembering” events and rendering them as blatant exposition, and delivering asides to inform the audience what a good, caring person Richard is. Monhollen and Elst do their best with what they’re given, but it’s enough to provoke a slight dread about what the rest of the play has in store.

It’s dread averted. As A Time to Live develops, Monhollen and Elst gradually draw us in; every momentary success earns a smile of gladness and every reminder of her disease provokes a visceral tension. Elst builds on his character’s overhyped niceness, letting his tension bleed through little by little until he finally explodes. Monhollen plays Madeline as strong-willed and steadfast in front of her husband, which can be a little one-note at times, but it’s in her moments alone where she reveals more, that mask slipping ever so much to reveal the worry inside.

A Time to Live does not break any radical new ground. Portraits like this have existed in various mediums for decades, and will for decades more. But Windfall’s production of Goldstein’s play works because it stays on the right side of sentimentality and melodrama. Especially for a world premiere, that’s something to love.

Windfall Theater’s A Time to Live runs at Village Church Arts, 130 E. Juneau Ave, through March 2. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or at (414) 332-3963.

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