Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 5
If you are a human over the age of about 12, something or someone will have already broken your heart at least once.
So you know how hard it is to grieve, and that it is even harder to talk about grieving because every single thing there is to say has been voided of meaning. It’s as if a special neutron bomb went off, leaving the phrase-buildings in place while vaporizing the feelings they were meant to house. One impotent cliché follows another with random, fruitless repetitions until the verbal lifeline becomes a barbed whip flaying your poor brain with futility. Playwright Jenny Schwartz has found a simple, brilliant way around this problem in her wonderful 2007 play, God’s Ear. She piles those clichés on and on until, compressed under their own weight, they reignite with meaning.
Jeff Storer has staged this deeply engaging “play with music” for Manbites Dog Theater, where the intimacy of the space is well suited to our encounter with a death in the family. In the opening scene, Mel (Meredith Sause, working up to the level of her considerable talent) and Ted (Derrick Ivey, giving a subtle, warm performance) sit stiffly under the bleaching lights in a hospital waiting room, trying to get their minds around the idea that their son is not going to recover from drowning. What follows is the story of the first months of their grieving and an examination of the forces that tie the family (Nicole Quenelle makes a credible young daughter) together and those that would spin them apart as Mel and Ted try to find out how to live without their son. As usual with Storer’s directing, they get all the time they need for life to unfold.
Lest you think this all sounds too grim, here comes the Tooth Fairy! Marcia Edmundson, with lovely violet hair, is the very embodiment of a ministering angel. Action figure GI Joe also makes an appearance (Chris Burner, when not in his alternate role of transvestite flight attendant.) When Ted, who flies constantly for work, holes up in an airport bar, we get a hilarious cameo of barfly Guy by Rajeev Rajendran and a beautiful turn by Katja Hill as a sad, drunk, hopeful blonde. Derrick Ivey also designed the set, which is another of his fine simple-in-concept designs that allows for a great variety of scenes and types of movement, and that expresses basic realities of the world it takes us to. The stage floor is covered with low platforms of varying sizes and heights. This is rough terrain, indeed, with deep ditches and hidden pits. Chuck Catotti’s lighting reinforces its dangers and desperate comforts.
The script has songs written into the text but did not come with music, so Storer commissioned Bart Matthews to compose for the show, and some of his music is very fine. I don’t know where this recent trend of music on stage got started, but it is wonderful. Matthews plays piano, accordion and guitar, and when he enters the play space with his instruments, he seems to be the spirit of music. And the music, together with the comic encounters and the brilliant language play, allows us to go with empathy into this sad world and to return consoled ourselves.