Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Before You Were Alive
Illusion Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Journey's End, A New Brain, Unknown

Beth Gilleland
Photo by Lauren B Photography
Before You Were Alive is a labor of love, in the fullest sense of the word, for writer and performer Beth Gilleland. Gilleland has a long association with Illusion Theater, where Before You Were Alive was developed and is now having a world premiere production. A one-woman show featuring Gilleland and an onstage musician, it is funny, endearing, moving, and 100 percent tenderhearted

The show feels very much like a family affair. Early on, Gilleland tells the audience that, much to her surprise, at the age of forty-two, she fell in love with a family: father, daughter, son and dog. The father was a man who had, the pervious year, lost his wife to cancer. The daughter was his child from a previous marriage, with whom he shared custody with his ex-wife. The son, child of the father and his late second wife, was on the cusp of turning five without a mother. We never hear a great deal about the dog, but it seems like an affable pooch.

Before You Were Alive primarily deals with the close bond formed between Gilleland and the boy, developing as an independent entity even as she continued to draw closer to the father as well, eventually moving in with the family, thus becoming a part of it. This series of anecdotes begins with her attempt, after only dating the father for a few months, to assist him—and earn some approval points from his extended family and friends—in bringing a more gracious level of hospitality to the boy's haphazardly thrown together fifth birthday. It is an amusing story seasoned with irony and heart, and starts the show off on a very good foot.

Gilleland never reveals the names of any of these family members, referring only to the father, the boy, the daughter, and first mom. It is an interesting choice, but works well, creating a feeling of the playwright telling stories in which she happens to be a character, as opposed to telling us about her own life, deflecting the focus from herself and onto the boy. Over the course of Before You Were Alive, many more sweetly funny stories are told, as well as some that are sweetly sad, concerning the failing health of the boy's birth mother, with whom Gilleland had been acquainted. By the end of the program, the boy is ten years old, making it through his first decade of life with the love and unflinching support of two wonderful women.

These anecdotes, drawn upon fairly common life experiences, are enlivened by the boy's voice, which, it appears, contains a touch of the poet. For example, an evening playtime gets out of hand and Gilleland—whom he calls Bethy—calls it to an end and whisks the boy off to take his nighttime bath. The boy, sobbing about his game being so rudely curtailed, cries out "Nobody better take a bath in my bathwater, cause it's full of tears!". For her part, Gilleland, while clearly a beacon of kindness and good sense, owns up to just enough prickliness to give the stories a keen edge. And of course, there is the unfiltered inquisitiveness of young children, as when the boy at age five is taken off to bed and asks the father if he and Bethy are going to have a "sleepover."

Throughout the eighty-minute piece, the stories are accompanied or introduced with music—piccolo or saxophone—played by DB Carlson, some familiar tunes that match the story being told, others Carlson's original compositions. About midway, he performs an extended jazz-infused saxophone piece, one that issues swirling notes that give a sense of being carried away by feelings and thoughts, while allowing Gilleland to take an on-stage break from her lengthy narration.

Tech elements in this production are modest, but Dean Holzman provides three stylish banners hung from ceiling to floor that provide visual interest, and Barb Portinga has designed a costume for Ms. Gilleland that combines homey warmth with a flair of hipster artiness. Mike Wangen's lighting is well coordinated with the swells and recesses in the narratives' emotional path.

Though the story travels over gentle highs and lows, rather than huge peaks and valleys, Gilleland has devised it to end with a hugely welcome surprise. Before You Were Alive leaves you feeling warmth and goodness, with an appreciation for the many ways in which loving families can be formed. It is a mild entertainment, but one that nurtures the heart, a welcome reinforcement in a world where so much in our culture and politics chip away at it.

Before You Were Alive runs through November 9, 2019, at Illusion Theater, 528 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $17.00 - $30.00. For tickets and information, call 612-339-4944 or visit

Playwright: Beth Gilleland; Music: DB Carlson; Director: Michael Robins Fern; Set Design: Dean Holzman; Technical Director: Robin McIntyre; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Sound Design: Abe Gabor; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Janet Hall.

Cast: Beth Gilleland (herself), DB Carlson (music).