One of the comforting lies we tell ourselves in life is that there's a natural time span to mourning. Even people who've never experienced the loss of a loved one have heard of the "natural" stages of Denial, Guilt, Anger, and Acceptance, which make grief sound like an evolutionary process, at the end of which one steps off (ta-da!) happy again. But the uncomfortable truth is that death and loss haunt us in mysterious ways, and this is the substance of Keri Healey's brilliant new play, Penetralia.
Annex Theater, 728-0933
through November 7
Trip (Scott Pusquellec) and Jennifer (Debra Pralle) are a typical, perhaps strangely typical, young professional pair living in Seattle. Some years previous, they lost their son in an auto accident, but both have seemingly "moved on" from the tragedy. All seems, if not well, at least well enough. When we first meet them, they're preparing for a Christmas dinner with Trip's brother Cameron (Paul Budraitis) and his date, Celia (Elizabeth Stetson). They light candles, set places, and lovingly tease each other across the table. But when Trip wishes his wife a Merry Christmas, she replies, still smiling, "I hate Christmas, Trip."
Something below the surface, some mechanism of the heart, is clearly damaged in both people, and the course of Penetralia is to go deep into each of them to try to find what it is. For much of the play, the central characters are watched not only by us, but by members of Jennifer's grief support group. In the cast list, most of the group's members are identified not with a name but with a simple initial, along with whom they are mourning: a child lost to cancer, a lover lost to suicide, a husband lost to a drug overdose. This is how we identify them, and how they identify themselves, not as fully realized human beings, but as participants in an event, studies in a casebook, held together by the universal experience of living past a loved one's death.
There's a wonderfully truthful element of one-upmanship and competition in the support group, where the participants don't just tell of their own feelings, but comment on each other's. All have different approaches to their problems. Teddy (the eloquent and charismatic Mare Philpott) espouses herbal remedies and stories of the Buddha, but is not clearly more successful than F (Norene Sterling, exuberantly trashy), who finds her solace in swigs of Jack Daniels.
As for Jennifer, the loss of her son sends her on a journey to find remnants of him, because she finds her love for him irreplaceable. Debra Pralle is a gifted actress with a considerable range, smart, funny, emotionally open, and sexy when the occasion demands, but she's never been as good as she is here. More than anyone or anything else, her restless energy powers this piece; her unanswered quest for reconcilement is clear-headed and heroic, and never falls into the sort of poetic self-absorption so common in this sort of role.
An immensely inventive director, Carys Kresny manages to create some resonant images to complement Healey's talky script. (This isn't a criticism of Healey's dialogue, which is precise and surprising, but, Lord, these people sure do talk a lot.) The play's action centers on a large wooden box filled with drawers, which serves at various times as kitchen table, workbench, and hospital bed. For one moment only, when Trip lays out his dead son's clothes on its surface, is it explicitly a coffin, but that image haunts the remainder of the evening.
There's a lot of stylization in this sharp production, but it's always in the service of the script. Characters in an intimate conversation are emotionally miles apart, so they are pinned to opposite walls by squares of light. People become ghosts, or the vessels of ghosts. There's a seriousness here that reminds us how rarely theater serves as a vehicle for adult and disturbing themes.
One of the greatest delights about Penetralia is that it's such a departure from the traditional "Annex style" of the last few years, where cross-gender casting, poster-bright colors, and seemingly arbitrary pop-culture references have become de rigeur in everything from comedies and musicals to classics. Some of these shows have been tremendously entertaining, but after a while, the effect's a bit like having a carnival move in next door.
In the play's second half, some of Healey's focus becomes diffuse, largely because of her attempts to develop more narrative strands than she can ever resolve. An extramarital affair is erotic and well-drawn, but is largely extraneous to the play's larger concerns. But these missteps are minor. Though the show's long, its main journey is an unerring one. Dramatic and funny, sorrowful and moving, it's a triumph for the writer, the director, and the entire cast.