As fish in water, we are often unaware of other universes and states of consciousness beyond our own. This is especially true when we are grieving.
In the regional premiere of This, by Melissa James Gibson, Jane (Jessica Robblee), a single mother who lost her husband almost a year before, is hanging out with her longtime friends, Tom (Michael Morgan), Merrell (Ghandia Johnson), and Alan (Josh Hartwell), and a newcomer to their group Jean Pierre (David R. Russell).
Gibson’s crackling dialogue and well-woven plot make for a gripping ride, as this group of forty-somethings careem through the challenges and temptations that come their way. They are a literate bunch—having met while they (Jane, Merrell, and Tom) attended and worked at (Tom) an unnamed college—providing a springboard for Gibson’s witty and often astonishing interplays.
Two of Gibson’s standout verbal jousts that demand mention are: the use of an old improv exercise where the questioner is told to figure out a story concocted by his/her peers, the upshot of which is that there is no story and that the group answers “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” based on whether the question ends in a consonant, vowel, or the letter “y”, all of which leads Jane to believe “the story” about her; and a sequence where Alan, a mnemonist (perfect recall of events and dialogue), finds himself in the middle of an argument between Merrell and Tom over what they said long ago, with both parties claiming to have said things that they did not, as he so annoyingly points out.
Jane’s precarious balancing act, as she navigates along her emotional tightrope, is palpable in Robblee’s edgy characterization. Wonderfully, Jane’s bad choices lead to a breakthrough, with relief and catharsis accompanying Robblee’s concluding monologue.
Unbeknownst to each other—at least regarding the details—Tom and Merrell are both unhappy in their marriage; ironically, they both share their concerns with Jane, whose advice towards her old friends is the polar opposite of her own behavior, creating some serious consequences; all the while, she is wishing that Alan, who is gay, would fall in love with her. Meanwhile, Merrell keeps trying to set up Jane with Jean Pierre, on whom Alan has his own designs.
Morgan and Johnson punch and counterpunch with equal intensity, providing a painful reminder of how children complicate relationships and resolutions. Hartwell’s effortless, mile-a-minute repartee provides steady comic relief and ascerbic social commentary. Russell’s Jean Pierre takes all this one step further, with a refreshing French perspective on the foibles of American morality that remains hung up on failed religious paradigms.
Amidst all the entertaining fun and heartbreak, This asks some hard questions of each of us, most pointedly, “What large elephant in our life are we ignoring?” Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s regional premiere of Melissa james Gibson’s This, directed by Christy Montour-Larsen, runs through May 18th.