The death of someone dear usually stirs regrets over words not spoken, thoughts that no longer count. Maybe this helps everybody to be nicer but what’s also going on is an anxious assessment of one’s own behavior under pressure. Did I get it right or do I deserve punishment?
Britta Johnson gently guides audiences at the Old Globe Theatre through this progression to absolution and reassurance, in her moving, poetical nectar of words and music, Life After.
A girl quarrels with her father, who has found room in his busy travelling schedule for a surprise quick trip home on her 16thbirthday. Does he think she just hangs around waiting for him to notice her? He’s contrite well short of apology, asking her to reset her schedule as he has done. It’s a standard family dispute, worth little more than a sigh and compromise, but it ends without resolution.
Later that day comes word that her father has been killed in a car wreck.
Reactions pop all around her. Her mother, her older sister, her best friend, her favorite teacher… each has sympathy for her but also personal visions of their own reactions. And the rest of the world is represented by a three-woman chorus called in the program, “The Furies.”
(In classical Greek drama, the Furies were immortals working with Pluto, ruler of the underworld, charged with relentlessly hounding insolent youths who mistreat elders, especially parents. Here, Johnson uses them deftly as fill actors in crowd scenes, as bit players when needed but also in something like their classic roles as stinging consciences.)
So delicate yet decisive is Johnson’s scalpel, the play is a marvel of sophisticated evocation, sketching keenly individualistic characters with nuanced lives that proceed as the girl struggles to sort out her reactions. The dead father, limited in her memory to words said around their quarrel, is as vivid as the survivors moving on.
The girl, planted downstage and staring into infinity as the mills of memory grind, at first treats the events as a mystery. His plane out left at 8 p.m. but his last call was at 8:22. The wreck was in an obscure suburb where she might have attended a party that night. What does it all equal?
Then, as the complex relationships of her father, a charismatic self-help peddler with a new book in release, with others around her begin to shift and change, she begins to find a world wider than she expected.
The realization that this perceptive play, dreamy yet muscular, and the eloquent surge of the slight songs, so intimately fitted to the emotions of the moment, are both the work of the same artist inspires genuine awe.
As the Furies sing, in various contexts: “Wow!”
It wouldn’t work nearly so well without a skilled and polished production such as the one director Barry Edelstein and his Globe associates have provided. The general sensitivity to the work shown by everyone involved – actors, designers, technicians – specifies how ready the Globe is to serve deserving art.
Using only minimal hints of characterization, Edelstein has drawn forth a believable assortment of individuals, each plausible as centers of their own story but none dragging at this particular perspective. No tricks, just solid motivations and appropriate behaviors, hard to get right but, as shown here, blissfully effective. Ann Yee is credited with the choreography.
As the girl, Sophie Hearn seems destined to be stuck as an inert centerpiece until she begins to get it. The mists clear, the mysteries bump into explanation and something the father said – “Stop looking for the story; only look for me” – becomes the wand with which Ms. Hearn finds the character’s soul.
Bradley Dean deftly juggles ambition, appetite, pride and love as the father, still bringing the comfort as the baggage accumulates. The elegant Charlotte Maltby and the patient Mamie Peters shape well the older sister and the mother, respectively. Dan’yelle Williamson as the teacher and Livvy Marcus as the best friend nearly overdo it but relax into the play and Edelstein’s staging.
Lynne Shankel’s credit as music supervisor, arranger and orchestrator suggest that she deserves sincere respect for what she has done in making Ms. Johnson’s piece so seamless and getting such authoritative singing from the cast (especially the Furies, Simone Rose, Mackenzie Warren and Charlotte Mary Wen) and accompaniment from four strings, percussion and keyboard (presided over by conductor Chris King).
The dream-play aspect is immensely enhanced by Neil Patel’s evocative scenery, mostly wispy shapes specific – especially the town-house rows receding into the distance – and abstract as needed. Sven Ortel’s disciplined projections and Japhy Weideman’s selective lighting work with intimate synchrony.
This is indeed a Globe debut to be savored. I think I will be joined by a significant majority of Globe audiences in voting to see soonest whatever Ms. Johnson choses as the next object of her preternatural perceptions. Sincere thanks to Edelstein and the Globe for this gift.
(Performances continue on the Old Globe Theatre stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through April 28, 2019.)