Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Letting Go On Stage at Women's Theater Stage
Also see Bob's review of Guest Artist
If good intentions and an idea borrowed from Thornton Wilder's Our Town were sufficient to make for a viable play, the news from the Women's Theater Company would not be so discouraging. Despite the efforts of a fine cast and the professional stylishness of the direction by Barbara Krajkowski, playwright Marylee Martin fails at every turn to display the basic skill necessary to provide meaningful drama and believable characters in her gentle and sincere Letting Go.
With the words, "and just like that she stopped breathing" spoken in the dark, Letting Go begins with the death from cancer of a young wife and mother from Commack, New York. Teri has left behind her husband Rob and their five-year-old son Michael, as well as her brother Bill and sister Rose. The stage is divided down the middle into two settings. At stage left is a mountain cabin which is a re-creation of where Teri and Rob spent their honeymoon. Here Teri is ensconced with a much longer deceased helper, Cowboy Claude, while she prepares herself to enter eternity by reading the book of her life in preparation for signing off on it. At stage right, the setting is the living room of Rob and Teri's home. Over a three-year period, we follow the travails and adjustments in the lives of Rob and Michael. During this time, Rob becomes romantically involved with a widow, Lisa, who has a pre-adolescent daughter, Ashley. Through an ever-shrinking window hung center stage, Teri is able to look into her former home and even psychically reach out to help her family. As her son and widowed husband find contentment, and Teri signs off on the book of her life and prepares to enter eternity, the window linking their now separate worlds is no more.
A basic problem with Martin's play is that the cabin, the book of Teri's life and the odd presence of Cowboy Claude, which occupy half the stage and about a third of this one-act play's running time, are almost completely superfluous. Despite the attention given to the device of Teri's Book of Life, all we learn from it is that when she was a schoolgirl, the cruel teasing which she and her friends inflicted on another girl was very hurtful, and, thus, that all are actions affect others. Not only do we learn precious little of its contents, but we learn nothing of how it prepared her to enter eternity. As for the mysterious Cowboy Claude, he is ultimately demystified by a sad, out of left field tale of his lost love Kathy. Cowboy Claude is redeemed by Teri's discovery that happily Kathy has died without ever finding another partner. Why wasn't Claude given a window to view and help his Kathy after his death? As happens so often in Letting Go, consistency and the implications of events and actions are never considered, much less explored, by author Martin.
On the other side of the divide, there is inconsistency of character, including ill-considered behaviors apparently intended for dramaturgical purposes. A prime example is a scene in which the bereaved and most likeable Rob is in the process of committing suicide when Claude calls this to Teri's attention. It is her intervention which prevents his death at his own hand. Martin does not indicate the slightest awareness of the shameful and selfish egocentricity of a single father, healthy and successful, who would deliberately make his five-year-old son an orphan. Late in the play, there is a "surprise" when Michael expresses to new mom Lisa ("you're nicer than my other mom") his negative feelings about Teri. Giving the proffered reason and its surrounding circumstances, it is at the very least highly unlikely that Michael would feel as he does, and it is not believable that he has remained silent for three years about his feelings only to reveal them to the now deeply caring and sensitive Lisa (in an earlier scene with Rob, Lisa had behaved selfishly and with a lack of sensitivity towards Rob's concerns and needs).
Both structural and sensitivity issues are raised by the character of Teri's castrating sister Rose. After Teri's funeral, the widowed Rose cuttingly denigrates her good-natured brother Bill, selfishly stakes claim to Teri's jewelry, and is clearly anxious to smother her nephew Michael. Despite Bill's warning about Rose's character, the bereaved and overwhelmed Rob is grateful that she is and will be there to help. Rose then disappears until very late in the play, although Bill is an almost constant presence in Ron's home.
There are ecumenical notions here. Teri and her siblings Rose and Bill are Jewish, Rob and Lisa (and her daughter) are Catholic, and Michael is both Jewish and Catholic because his mother was Jewish and he has been baptized. Claude, a Methodist, recites a Hebrew prayer and Teri, viewing a crèche figure observes, "I always loved that little baby Jesus." Unfortunately, only harridan Rose's speech is peppered with Yiddishisms and inflected with the accent and patterns once common among eastern European-born Jews and their children, while Rose's siblings Teri and Bill talk in smooth, uninflected English. The message conveyed by this is beware of relatives who call you "bubbala." This undermines the credibility of Martin's seemingly faith based ecumenicalism. Following the author's inappropriately ethnic portrait of Rose is the one serious misstep in Barbara Krajkowski's otherwise impeccable direction.
There is a scene which plays like a sidebar in which Lisa and Ashley have a serious discussion about Ashley's feelings about her parents and their divorce. It is one of those scenes in which the playwright bulkily packs more information into a conversation than it can realistically or comfortably hold. Furthermore, the words and advice which Lisa dispenses sound more textbook than natural speech.
Janice Kildea believably runs the full gamut of emotions as the recently deceased Teri. Bill Edwards brings out the likeable warmth and sensitivity of the grieving Rob. His interpretation is on target for the character that Martin has created, even when Martin's scripted behaviors undermine it. Valerie Stack Dodge is a charming and winning stage presence as Lisa. This is appropriate even as Lisa selfishly manipulates Rob. Philip Casale (Bill) and Keith Beechey (Claude) lend solid support. Casale is most delightfully human when while coaxing Rob to date; he falls into an imitation of the Sasha Cohen character Borat to utter the words, "she's very nice." Meridith Johnson is skillful in performing the role of Rose, but the role is so inappropriately written that Johnson's solid effort is wasted.
Special mention is due to the work of both child performers on stage here. In the role of Ashley, thirteen-year-old Katie Mitchell displays a centered stage presence. Her dialogue is delivered with a natural intonation, clarity and sincerity which is often not in the range of so young a performer. As Michael, ten-year-old (or thereabouts) Charles Auriemma is articulate in his line readings, and his relaxed and natural presence on stage belie his tender age. It is a special pleasure to praise these talented youngsters.
Letting Go continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8 pm/ Sun. 3 pm) through March 22, 2008 at the Women's Theater Company at the Parsippany Playhouse, 1130 Knoll Road, Lake Hiawatha, NJ 07034. Box Office: 973-316-3003; online: www.womenstheatercompany.org.
Letting Go by Marylee Martin; directed by Barbara Krajkowski