By Rick A. Elina
We encounter few things in life that have the capacity to destroy our emotional equilibrium like the loss of a loved one. The death of someone close can scar the landscape of our psyche leaving a wide path of devastation in its wake. Even the collateral damage can be significant. Michael Brady’s critically acclaimed Off-Broadway play, To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, presents the subject of death with the poignant force of a hurricane’s direct hit. Reaching an emotional Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale, the eye wall eventually breaks down and Mr. Brady allows us to bask in the glow of the sunshine that always follows the storm.
Mesquite Community Theatre presents To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, as the second installment of it’s 2009 Season. Under the remarkable direction of Brad Stephens, the audience is given equal parts tragedy and therapy. Mr. Stephens, who also serves as set and sound designer, asked his actors to dig “deeply into uncomfortable emotional places” in order to bring honesty to their characters. For the most part, they deliver in an exemplary manner.
The play opens on the beach house deck of Gillian’s husband, David. It’s the eve of Gillian’s 37th birthday and her absence is heartfelt. As he stargazes from the beach, David recounts Gillian’s tragic and senseless death two years prior. Played by Josh Hepola, David has not been able to grieve the loss of his wife properly. In terms of the Kubler-Ross 5 Stages of Grieving, he spends most of his time straddling steps one and two (Denial and Anger) with frequent plunges into step four (Depression). The story of Gillian is in essence David’s story. Yet Mr. Hepola falls short of portraying the brooding husband that one would expect from a wounded recluse like David. While certain key emotional scenes are delivered with a great deal of confidence, others fall flat or seem rushed.
David’s daughter, Rachel (Rebekah Kennedy) is equally wounded by the loss of her mother. Ms. Kennedy is an extraordinary actor playing at an emotional level well beyond her years. She infuses her character with the overwrought damage of a daughter that has witnessed her mother’s death.
Also, visiting for the weekend is Gillian’s sister Esther (Lacy Lambert) and her husband Paul. Esther, a psychologist holds the mirror of introspection and forces David to take a painful and honest look into the shell of the man he has become. On the flip side of the coin, Paul, played by the superb Larry Jack Dotson delivers the more comedic moments of the play. Together they conspire to lift David from his depression by introducing him to Kevin (Jenny George) a former female student.
Though deceased, Gillian (Arlette Morgan) propels the story to its satisfying conclusion. Ms. Morgan, one of the most gifted actors in the area, glides across the ample stage like a celestial spirit floating on a heavenly cloud. Her glow is angelic and her mission, as both actor and character are divinely inspired. No wonder David spends his time gazing toward the stars.
Over all, this production is well worth the drive to Mesquite.
Gillian on Her 37th Birthday runs through April 25, 2009. For more information contact Mesquite Community Theatre box office at (972) 216-8126 or mctweb.org.
Rick A. Elina is a playwright based in Plano, Texas and the Theatre Critic for the North Dallas Gazette.