Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Humana Festival 2015: Loss, longing, and life after death make for a compelling mix in "I Will Be Gone"

Amy Berryman
Photo: Bill Breymer
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Who: Actors Theatre of Louisville
What: I Will Be Gone by Erin Courtney
When: March 13-April 12, 2015

[Watch my capsule video blog review with co-critic Tina Farmer.]

In Erin Courtney's drama "I Will Be Gone," almost all of the residents of a small town in California's Sierra Nevada mountains are haunted by something, be it painful memories, unfulfilled desires, or actual ghosts. Their attempts to come to grips with both the impermanence of life and the occasional visit by a traveller from Shakespeare's "undiscovered country" are the basis for a play which, while not without its flaws, is still intriguing and compelling.

As the play opens, seventeen-year-old Penelope is still hurting from the death of her mother, Theresa, only a month earlier. She's now living with her mother's sister, Josephine, in the small town where the two sisters grew up—and which Theresa left as soon as she could.

It's a typical small town where everybody knows everybody else. Josephine's old high-school sweetheart, Liam, is now the mayor, and their brainy friend Jim has become the local homeless eccentric, driven by his schizophrenia to endlessly rattle off tangentially related facts. When Penelope meets Elliot, the boy next door who is battling drug addiction, they find common ground as the town outsiders and become friends.

L-R: Birgit Huppuch and Amy Berryman
Photo: Bill Breymer
At a loss for what to do with herself, Penelope takes a job as a docent, leading tours of Bodie, the nearby ghost town, now preserved by law in a state of "arrested decay." As Penelope becomes more familiar with Bodie and its history, the town and the ghosts that might inhabit it take on added importance, and it becomes apparent that the adults around Penelope may be in their own states of arrested decay.

A terrific ensemble cast is led by Amy Berryman as Penelope and Birgit Huppuch as Josephine. It's nice to see a new play with big, multi-layered roles for women, and both of these actresses completely inhabit their parts. Alex Moggridge perfectly captures the fading charm of Liam, who has never quite grown up, and Triney Sandoval is unnervingly credible as the troubled Jim, unable to shut off the flow of thoughts from the once-brilliant mind that has betrayed him.

Ms. Courtney has created a painfully real character in Jim. A scene late in the play in which the teenage Jim has a romantic interlude with the young Theresa (perfectly played by Hernando Caicedo and Lexi Lapp, respectively) makes the character's fall all the more poignant, since it allows us to see the brilliant young man he once was.

Rachel Leslie does fine work as Liam's sharp-tonged wife Liz, and Seth Clayton is endearing as the troubled Eliot. Eighth grader Elise Coughlan has a nice cameo as Young Josephine in an opening ghost scene.

Scenic designer Andrew Boyce has filled the floor of the Bingham black box theater with weathered-looking doors and windows that suggest both the ghost town and its living neighbor. A large scale model of the ghost town descends from the ceiling on wires for scenes in Bodie, and then flies up to become the big, open sky characteristic of the high country. When it's lowered, it dominates the stage, reminding us of just how large a presence the ghost town is.

L-R: Lexi Lapp and Hernando Caicedo
Photo: Bill Breymer
Kip Fagan's direction is precise and crisp, but he often violates the First Law of blocking for theatre in the round by having actors face each other directly instead of working on diagonals. As a result, there are times when parts of the audience see nothing but performers' backs.

Original music and sound design by Daniel Kluger and Seth Clayton produce vivid soundscapes, including disturbingly realistic earthquakes and otherworldly manifestations.

At one hour and forty-five minutes with no intermission, "I Will Be Gone" felt a bit long. A couple of scenes, such as a punk rock band rehearsal in the city hall, seemed to serve no useful purpose and could probably be cut. Some elements of the supernatural subplot also felt a bit under-developed. On the whole, though, this is a very strong script that says intelligent things about loss and life transitions, and does so with compassion and humor.

This play deserves a life beyond Humana. It could be very attractive to regional theatres looking for new material. Even smaller companies with more modest technical resources should be able to pull it off.

"I Will Be Gone" runs through April 12th at Actors Theatre of Louisville, as part of the 39th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. For more information:

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