Not Going Gently Into That Good Night
Next Act’s Three Views offers funny, insulting, despairing, poignant look at old age.
To the standard complaint that there are no great parts for older actors, Next Act Theatre offers a firm and quite commercial rebuttal in Three Views of the Same Object.
The production doesn’t just pump older actors into a chronicle about the flickering twilight of marriage and the bizarre incongruities of a euthanasia pact. That sounds grim. But niftily, the production uses the performers’ humanity and expertise to let surprising bursts of laughter and recognition add a curious romanticism to this Milwaukee premiere.
It’s a striking demonstration of how theatrical intuition can collaborate to elevate the psychological ideas and language gifts of an emerging playwright, Henry Murray.
His dramatic conceit explores three possible conclusions — out of an infinite many — to the flickering candle stubs of the lives of Jesse and Poppy. Multiple time-warp echoes of the couple occupy the stage together — dealing with advancing cancer, failing bladders, drunkenness, touches of dementia and changing attitudes about a commitment that the younger and healthier couple made to die together.
The exploration erupts with insults and toilet humor that make George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like sophomores of invective. It offers an interlude of bedroom foreplay that will confound a public that associates coupling with firm young skin and sitcom romps. It confronts how reality interferes with the ability of human beings to control their own destiny, how couples do not enter the twilight with the same sensibilities they began with — sometimes changing for the worse with brutal words, sometimes for the better with acceptance and dignity.
The play challenges audiences looking for love in all the wrong places, and questions a culture that identifies romance, devotion and sex with flaming hot youth, or maybe with Viagra for those good-looking middle agers featured in commercials, not with incontinence, weird body odors, booze without “Mad Men” charm and fidelity turned to cruelty.
On the other side, some who consider themselves socially attuned and empathetic to the plight of the elderly may embrace Three Views for social message more than artistry. Murray, for dramatic and ideological purpose, emphasizes the establishment’s moral resistance to graceful self-determined exits from life for ailing old people. So the play is likely to cause interesting discussions within many households, as it well should.
Some of the cleverest writing elevates the shock therapy humor of old timers commenting unabashedly on their own frailties. Those are such powerful moments that they overwhelm Murray’s attempts at more elegiac reflections on dying. This seesaw causes the actors to maneuver on a high-wire to keep the characters honest and the observations touching.
The moments of real invention within the play come from the playwright and ensemble’s intelligent grasp of what live theater can do to add visionary oomph to these themes. Director Shawn Douglass creates deftly emerging tableaus and seamless interplay, as the multiple characters literally walk through and past each other. The various Jesses and Poppys pop through the same living room, share the same couch and bed, even the same chair to contemplate while other incarnations interact.
The main connection to help us unspool the various conclusions becomes a well-meaning busybody bringing casseroles and outsider attitudes to the door. The frequently present and deceptively named Mrs. Widkin is played with winning simplicity by Jenny Wanasek, who knows better than to comment on her character, and just lets her entrances and chatty dialog carry some sharp shifts in meaning.
This cast is worth talking about – but carefully, so as not to give away plot twists. As Poppy 1 and Jesse 1, James Pickering and Laurie Birmingham are the George and Martha of the piece, she attacking, him deflecting. Birmingham shines by finding a range of qualities in a hardened bitter soul moving from unseemly rage to sarcastic contrition. Pickering has the hardest acting job in terms of connecting with the audience, so he relies too heavily on a general intellectual amiability and endless patience – even as he takes charge with life-altering decisions.
In a contrast that is also an echo, John Kishline and Susan Sweeney (Poppy 2 and Jesse 2 for your scorecard) provide another vision that requires believable affection and underplayed natural presence on the part of the actors. It is hard to imagine it done better or with more dignity, to the point that the audience will regret their departures.
For yet more honest underpinning of emotions, add Flora Coker as Jesse 3, roaming the stage as the abandoned wife furious that her husband confided his intentions to others. It may not seem that Coker is doing much, but she is subtly serving as the foreshadowing glue, the mystery Jesse whose despair and resentment keep the play in balance.
It’s also worth noting the utilitarian set of William Boles, the detailed costumes of Emily Waecker that so quietly help the actors, and for how Next Act’s artistic director David Cecsarini, taking the role of sound designer, locks the denouement into our minds with radio and sound cues.
It would be somewhat unfair to Murray’s better intentions to call this outing an actor tour de force, though it is. The actors remain totally faithful to his vision, but the breadth of their own skills and experiences invests a special resonance.
Pickering has demonstrated his elasticity as an ensemble actor, giving way generously to others, since I first saw him at the Milwaukee Rep in the 1970s. In later Rep companies, Birmingham was an anchor of versatility for nearly two decades. Sweeney has graced many local stages as both accomplished actress and singer. Kishline and Coker were founding names of Theatre X and have matured in the vineyards of many Milwaukee theater companies with an honesty seldom acclaimed. This is a great opportunity to freshly embrace them.
Three Views of the Same Object continues through April 27 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. For tickets, go to nextact.org.
Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.