Maybe someone should have told Dylan Thomas that there’s no shame in going gently into that good night. That maybe there’s much to be gleaned from gentle introspection and acceptance.
Well, at least Will Eno can tell us. And he can do gentle introspection and acceptance with viral videos, bubbles, an explosion of glitter, and a smoke machine. Yes, the Catastrophic Theatre, in collaboration with Hyde Park Theatre and the University of Houston School of Theatre and Dance, is presenting the Pulitzer finalist’s Wakey, Wakey, an at times irreverent, at times gentle 75-minute foray into life and death.
Eno’s protagonist, Guy, is in the process of shuffling off this mortal coil, and he invites us (the audience) in to experience it with him. Guy observes, implores, teases, and generally just tries to grasp the ungraspable.
Though Eno’s script may appear (deceptively) simple in the moments that Guy imparts his common sense wisdom, it’s clear the Eno’s gone to the trouble of dusting off the usual musty aphorisms about life and death to tease them apart and embed them with added depth as he applies them to the final step in Guy’s journey. It’s a journey that bleeds honesty, that feels both universal and timeless, even if it does include the kind of funny animal videos you watch on YouTube when you should be sleeping. It’s no wonder that much of the play feels familiar, since many of history’s great, average, and less-than-average thinkers have written about the very moment Eno stages, but it’s the human face, it’s Guy, who is both everyone and no one but himself, that separates Wakey, Wakey from the pack.
To be clear, Wakey, Wakey is not a one-man show – to even imply that it seems like one would be a disservice to both Rebecca Robinson and Lisa, the character she plays – but Ken Webster as Guy (and the play’s director) shoulders the weight of the moment Eno has so carefully crafted. Guy is a man who knows he’s about to die. But he’s also a wry jokester. He’s self-aware and composed, determined to share something before he goes.
And despite being mostly confined to a wheelchair and clearly at death’s door, Webster is a solid presence as Guy, and it’s a presence he beautifully undercuts as the minutes tick by and he occasionally shakes, or his face contorts in pain, or clouds over as he misspeaks or forgets. While playing the physicality of the role, Webster navigates, with great agility, the spectrum of human emotion, from uncertainty and anguish to gratitude and acceptance.
Webster is a more than worthy guide for audiences willing to gently explore the fragments of an existential crisis, the kind that’s usually reserved for moments alone and late at night, when you’re too free from distractions. But again, it’s not a journey Guy or Webster takes alone.
As Guy begins to grow hazy, Robinson’s Lisa arrives. Lisa is a caregiver of sorts. Kind and friendly, Lisa is almost like an embodiment of the play itself, in that both are calming, reassuring and reaffirming. Robinson skillfully connects with Webster’s Guy, and the audience, while maintaining a certain detached distance. It’s a balancing act that works surprisingly well.
The no-nonsense set, by Mark Pickell and Zac Thomas, along with the prop design from Leroy Sakowitz, matches the tone of the show well. Hardwood floors. A calm-blue wall with a calendar hanging on one side and well-reserved space on the other for Lowell Bartholomee’s whimsical and moving projections. Boxes stacked neatly off to the right. And two potted plants on either side of French doors that lead to, well, as the brightly lit sign above them states, the exit.
Completing the scene are Cheryl Painter’s costumes. In particular, Guy’s slipper-less (though name brand sock-wearing), pajama-panted, sport coat-clad ensemble is unassuming and rumpled, and adds to the character’s vulnerability.
Don Day’s lighting cues help push the show forward, and Robert S. Fisher’s sound designs, from the background ambience of sirens, brakes, and birds, to a well-place kettle drum and more, contribute to the crucial world-building of the play. After all, Guy is a man appreciating the subtleties of the world as only a man who knows he’s about to leave it can.
Wakey, Wakey is an unabashed embrace of life couched in the trappings of death and masked as a theater show. And it’s far from dark. In fact, when it’s over, you may be ready to embark on the second part of your life, a second part that may include a new appreciation for life, the people around you, and solid food. What’s not to like about that?
Performances continue through February 3 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at the José Quintero Theatre, University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance, 3351 Cullen. For more information, call 713-522-2723 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay what you can; $40 suggested price.