Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

afterlife: a ghost story

Also see Nancy's review of Ruined

Marianna Bassham and Thomas Piper

afterlife: a ghost story is a haunting interpretation of one young couple's struggle to deal with the ultimate loss in the aftermath of their three-year-old son's death by drowning. Playwright Steve Yockey sensitively tugs on the ties that bind them together, allowing them to slowly unravel as the mother's grief threatens to engulf her and the marriage.

Danielle (Marianna Bassham) and Connor (Thomas Piper) return home to secure their beach house in advance of an approaching storm, unaware of the emotional maelstrom they will confront being at the scene of the accident. Connor appears to be chipper and is focused on the task at hand, but Danielle is fragile and haltingly makes her way into the once familiar living room. It quickly becomes evident that their divergent emotional states are the cause of tension between them and the sooner they can leave, the better. The house and the adjacent ocean are filled with ghostly sounds and ominous foreshadowing that tear Danielle apart, but she hopes to reclaim her son from the beast that swallowed him.

Bassham's portrayal of Danielle is heartbreaking, showing just how difficult it is to go on from one heartbeat to the next. When she sits on the beach staring out at the water, with her arms wrapped around her drawn-up knees, a dark cloud of sorrow passes across Bassham's face that says more than any dialogue ever could. She is a raw nerve that feels only pain and longs for relief, no matter how unlikely. As Connor, Piper skillfully navigates the bumpy terrain of his wife's psyche with a combination of tenderness, confusion, exasperation and anger, while sublimating his own unresolved sorrow.

The first act of afterlife is painfully realistic, but the second act is a different story. The ghosts of act one are imaginary, created from sound, light and memories; in act two, they are corporeal with human characteristics, but speak in allegorical language. While it is fair and accurate to say that nobody really knows what happens after death, Yockey uses magical realism to convey his vision in three scenarios. He conjures up an oversized Black Bird that behaves like a wise therapist to Connor and a sympathetic postman who offers paternalistic advice to a young man, presumably the mourned son. The ocean is anthropomorphized into a woman who offers tea and tough love to Danielle and a seamstress who embodies all grieving mothers.

Nothing is certain in Yockey's rendering of the afterlife and we are encouraged to draw our own conclusions, so I'll share mine. Young Man, Connor and Danielle each faces a challenge specific to them in order to move from this place (purgatory?) to their final resting place (heaven?), or at least to gain closure from life. Although they have advisors or guides, each must confront and conquer their monumental task alone to determine the afterlife they will have. There is poetic justice in the outcome.

Karl Baker Olson exudes optimism and high energy when Young Man makes his first appearance. After a series of setbacks, he shows his disappointment with slumped shoulders and drooping head, but continues to convey a spark of hope that things will turn out okay. Dale Place does double duty as the postman and Black Bird, cleverly manipulating a magnificent feathered puppet created by Pandora Andrea Gastelum. Place's cool and understated demeanor is in stark contrast to the manic laughter of Georgia Lyman as The Seamstress who desperately reaches out to Danielle for comfort. Adrianne Krstansky is The Proprietress of the tea shop who is both devil and redeemer for the women in her care.

Although there is no visual representation of the sea in Cristina Todesco's beach-front set, Sound Designer David Remedios gives it a constant aural presence with evocative recordings of waves lapping at the sand. The crash of thunder and the deluge of rain complete the impressive soundscape, to use Remedios' word, and Karen Parsons adds staccato flashes of lightning to fully represent the fury of the storm bearing down on the couple. Lauren L. Duffy's properties design makes the beach house homey with lots of books, seashells, candles and throw pillows. Frances Nelson McSherry dresses Danielle and Connor in casual and comfortable sportswear and gives Young Man a shipwrecked look. The Seamstress wears an elaborate floor length dress with lace and tatting, and the attire of The Proprietress is militaristic with a cropped red jacket draped with braids of beads along the shoulders.

New Rep Artistic Director Kate Warner directs afterlife: a ghost story as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, in conjunction with productions at Southern Repertory Theatre in New Orleans and Edgemar Theatre Group in Santa Monica. Warner has been a champion of Yockey's work since directing several of his plays at Dad's Garage in Atlanta, her professional home prior to her tenure in Watertown. Having worked with him numerous times before and being involved with a staged reading of afterlife: a ghost story last year as part of New Voices @ New Rep gives Warner a head start in figuring out what it all means. As for me, I'm still working on it.

afterlife: a ghost story. Performances through February 6 at New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA; Box Office 617-923-8487 or Written by Steve Yockey, Directed by Kate Warner; Cristina Todesco, Scenic Design; Frances Nelson McSherry, Costume Design; Karen Parsons, Lighting Design; David Remedios, Sound Design; Pandora Andrea Gastelum, Puppet Design; Lauren L. Duffy, Properties Design; Victoria S. Coady, Production Stage Manager

Cast: in alphabetical order) Marianna Bassham (Danielle), Adrianne Krstansky (The Proprietress), Georgia Lyman (The Seamstress), Karl Baker Olson (Young Man), Thomas Piper (Connor), Dale Place (Postman/Black Bird)

Photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

- Nancy Grossman

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