Periodically, I ask my daughter — who has requested I tell her my last wishes for health care, disposal of belongings, funeral, etc., in case I’m unable to express them when the time comes — what she wants done with my body. Does she need it buried, so she’ll have a specific place for ritualistic visits, a kind of groundedness for her grief? Or would she like a container of ashes to scatter where she sees fit, wear in a locket, or keep in a container on the mantelpiece? The thing about cremains is that we don’t know how to think about them. They’re comic: I’ve seen more than one sitcom in which someone accidentally spills the ashes of her mother-in-law and has to vacuum them up before her husband comes home, or someone tosses cremains out in a scenic place only to have them blown back in his face by the wind. But they’re also terrifying: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” said T.S. Eliot. Those cremains were once a living person. Could there be any more absolute a reductio ad absurdum? “You really don’t have to worry about my wishes on this,” I tell my daughter. “I won’t have any.”
This contradiction, this diaphragm-shaking balance between grief and hilarity, is at the heart of Melissa James Gibson’s brilliant play This, now receiving a regional premiere in Boulder. Particularly when actual cremains make an unsettling appearance near the end.
The play is an examination of the lives of some thirty-something New Yorkers. Merrell and Tom have a new baby, and sleeplessness is straining their relationship. There’s also their gay friend Alan, who should be a cliché, but isn’t. The couple have invited over a Frenchman, Jean Pierre — another possible but averted cliché — who’s not only sexy, but also works with Medecins Sans Frontieres. Merrell and Tom are hoping he’ll distract their friend Jane, who’s been widowed a year and is having trouble coping with both her nine-year-old daughter and life in general. None of these people appears to have a real job — jazz singer, woodworker, professional mnemonist — or any financial problems, so they can focus entirely on their feelings. Yet This is anything but shallow — in large part because of that handful of dust.
Jane is moody as the action opens, and her friends persuade her to play a tricky storytelling game; their answers to her questions lead her to believe that the story she’s supposed to guess concerns her own life, and she leaves hurt and angry, eventually engaging in an action that threatens the fabric of their friendship and leaves her wracked with guilt. But despite all her distress, Jane seems pretty composed, if brittle, on the topic of her husband’s death.
The dialogue is insanely witty and surprising. As it spins along, you realize there are levels beneath the surface, levels having to do with race, class, how an individual life acquires meaning, mortality. Each character has a specific role in the dance, but none is a cipher. Jean Pierre is content to live up to the image of the suave Frenchman, attempting to light up a cigarette in Merrell and Tom’s living room and observing the others’ activities with that air of Gallic superiority that drives American men crazy and mesmerizes American women. But every now and then we get a glimpse of who he is at the core. Tom and Merrell’s arguments are painfully true as well as petty. The most wonderfully drawn characters, however, are Jane and Alan, particularly as played by Josh Hartwell and Jessica Robblee. Alan is still attempting to define himself, whether that means attempting to succor humanity like Jean Pierre or changing the spelling of his name. Lonely and neurotic, intensely clever, and the group’s chronicler since he’s the mnemonist — which means he remembers entire conversations verbatim — Alan is perfectly embodied by Hartwell, who comes across wiser and kinder than you’d expect, in a riveting performance. Robblee’s Jane has a wired, vibrating presence, a kind of tempered cynicism that hooks you from the start. She’s reserved, even masked, but you can read what she’s feeling behind her eyes.
The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company scored a coup in getting Christy Montour-Larson to direct — and her casting is also a coup. This closes out a stunning season that included Annapurna and the world premiere of And The Sun Stood Still with dead-on success.