The Sweet Hereafter
Jonathan Harvey's beautifully titled Hushabye Mountain, currently running at Theater LaB Houston, embraces a strange and lovely hodgepodge of subject matters. On the surface the play would seem just another addition to the chin-high stack of plays about AIDS, but once inside that familiar framework Harvey examines a quirky and provocative collage of ideas, including familial love, loss, friendship and that ever illusive and ultimately magical act of transcendence.
Focusing on the living and their often ineffectual attempts to find meaning in death, the script slides easily between the past and the present, between heaven and earth, mimicking the chaotic tumble of consciousness that accompanies the breaking heart.
A working-class British fellow named Connor (Joel Sandel) struggles to put his life back together in the wake of the death of his lover, Danny. To that end he is compelled to visit the dead man's mother, a woman he has never met. The audience, like Connor, knows nothing about Beryl (Susan Shofner) except that she has been locked up in the "loony bin" and hasn't spoken a word for two years.
But something in Connor (whom she intuitively recognizes as her dead son's "friend") inspires her to speak. And when she does, she launches into a long discursive examination of the use of the word "friend" to name gay lovers. Even weirder, this housewife from Liverpool speaks with a perfect American accent, dumbfounding both her caretaker and Connor. She discusses her vaudeville days and the gay men she knew way back when, none of which is possible given the woman's age and provincial background. All this is too strange, too mystical, for Connor, who evaporates before making any connection with the woman.
We meet him next at his brother's wedding, weeping "every five minutes" and running from his new "Buddhist" boyfriend, Ben (Scott Bonasso). Ridden with guilt, grief and anxiety Connor wonders, "How long after your bloke dies do you see someone else?"
While Connor struggles here on earth, Danny (Dustin Ross) waits in heaven for a sign that will allow him to pass on. Keeping him company is a ruby-slippered Judy Garland (also played by Susan Shofner), a woman who looks remarkably like his earthbound mother.
Then once again, we fall back to earth and to the sorrows of it, finding Connor's newlywed brother, Lee (James Lane), and his wife, Lana (Tiffani Ginn), also mourning the loss of Danny, who was, as it turns out, Lana's best friend. Lee's wedding present to Lana is an engraved pebble from a beach they loved. But the nostalgic trinket sends Lana back, in a reverie full of mourning, to a day she spent on the beach with Danny.
In this way the script skitters across the landscape of grief, never lingering very long on one particular aspect. Family, friends and lovers are all deeply affected. And each grapples in a different way with the powerful and lasting continuum that exists between the living and the dead, between the past and the present, between the heart and the imagination.
These are big ideas. And they could easily float off into hokey silliness were it not for the wonderfully concrete world evoked by Harvey's irreverent characters. These folk are not great or grand. They are ordinary working-class stiffs. Lee is a bicycle courier who drops a kidney he's transporting in the middle of the road; dead Danny was a college graduate who ended up a waiter; Buddhist boyfriend Ben is a groundskeeper at Buckingham Palace. They curse, take drugs and behave badly toward each other in the most commonplace ways.
At one point Ben gets ugly drunk and ends up ranting and raving about his status, cursing the queen, Princess Diana and the entire system. These details add dimension and an odd tenderness to Harvey's story. And director Jim Phillips's fine direction, along with his splendid cast, digs down deep to find the idiosyncrasies present in the most ordinary moment.
One night before Danny's death, Connor, Lee, Lana and Danny end up in a bar, high and wild, dancing and blathering on about nothing. Lane's Lee is hysterical and touching as he attempts to negotiate a friendship with his gay brother's lover. Hanging onto Danny's neck, the completely baked Lee tells the poor man how much he loves him, how he doesn't care about his status and how glad he is that he's in his brother's life. Lane's energy is most impressive for the seeming ease with which it is delivered. Every gesture, from his goofy barroom dance to his slouch into stoner bliss, is fresh, real and wonderfully exciting to watch.
Shofner's take on Danny's mother is wry, smart, strange and mysterious. Her descent into madness over the loss of her son is at once intensely poignant and very funny. And the ghostly sound of her sweet singing voice is so lonely and sorrowful and haunting that it will shiver the insides of anyone owning a heart.
Sandel's cowed Connor, who must learn to soldier on even in the face of death, is the perfect anxiety-ridden, hand-wringing worry wart; same for Bonasso, who takes on the huge challenge of playing unlikable Ben, a role that the actor handles with grace and integrity.
This is an almost winsome production of a play about regret and grief, and it exemplifies the sort of theatrical experience that lingers in the night, long after the theater has closed down and all the actors have gone home.
Hushabye Mountain runs through December 19 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, (713)868-7516. $20-$22.
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