Playwright Philip Dawkins has created a work that requires inventive staging, and offers a challenge to the producing theater. It deals with events in the clock-making Fail family of Chicago, chiefly the deaths of the parents and of three daughters, each in a separate manner, in 1928. The deaths are depicted in a light-hearted, sprightly manner; this is a comedic fable. (Listing these deaths is not a spoiler, as they are revealed at the very beginning of the play.) Stages Repertory Theatre has accepted the challenge, and brings us this work in its regional premiere. The execution:
Events are presented in an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, and the pace is brisk indeed, with entrances and exits abounding, and with tasteful ingenuity and colorful fabrics holding court center-stage. It has elements of carnival, of a circus, and of Cirque du Soleil, and I almost thought I might hear the line "Cue the elephants!"
Stages Repertory Theatre and director Leslie Swackhamer have more than met the staging challenge. The set features a huge clockwork mechanism upstage, and at one point birdcages drop to hold simulated parakeets made of vivid green fabric on an actor's arm - very effective. One of the daughters, Jenny June (Brittany Halen), attempts to swim across Lake Michigan, and disappears, apparently drowned in the attempt. Her practice swimming is done on various props, including a chair, and the final swim is in the air, on fabrics suspended from the ceiling - also quite interesting. Jenny June is the second daughter to die.
The first daughter to leave us is Nelly (Nina L. Garcia) and the third is Gertrude (Courtney D. Jones). A man named Mortimer Mortimer (David Matranga) courts them all, in sequence, like batters in a baseball game. The parents are Michelle Elaine as Mother and Luis Galindo as Father, and there is also an adopted brother, John (Lex Laas), who isn't good with people.
There is a plot, of sorts, besides the deaths: John and Mortimer become friends and live a long time. The difficulty is that we have no reason to care what happens to them, or to the daughters, as the frenetic pace and rapid-fire line delivery allow no breathing space for character to emerge. They are like stick-figures with balloons drawn from their heads, saying their lines in a loud, flat tone, just short of a shout, and then dashing off. It's a bit like reading a novel written in all capital letters.
The single exception is Garcia as Nelly, who manages to stay in sync with the general tone of the other actors, but also to add a piquant charm that is captivating. Matranga as Mortimer is essentially the lead character though the script requires him to be reactive rather than active. There are flashes of personality - Matranga has been dashing or amusing in other plays - but in general he joins the others in the realm of fixed smile and blank intonation, content to carry the narrative.
The tone is festive, but not much more than that. There is little wit, and such humor as there is stems from interesting prop changes. The underlying problem is that this is a play without content - the premise is that death can be treated lightly, as though it were not a serious matter, but then one expects a payoff, a synthesis, a conclusion, and there is none, just a narrative of events which fail to engage us.
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Mortimer is meant to be saddened by the death of Nelly, devastated in fact, and he is shown allowing the sands of time to sift through his outstretched hand, but the sense of loss is deliberately made abstract, distancing us from it. The problem lies with the play, and it's possible that, since the script has no heart, no production could really involve us. And yet there is the clue that it might after all be possible, since Garcia has shown us that rapid-fire need not mean the absence of charm.
A festive atmosphere entertains, and stagecraft is successfully given the reins, in a production that feeds the eyes with color and activity.
Failure: A Love Story continues through February 16, from Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, call 713-527-0123 or contact www.stagestheatre.com.