Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Fortunately, once the play began, my pique about the title was forgotten and I settled into rapt engagement with the play. It begins with shadow puppets projected behind a screen in the center of Pillsbury House's long stage. The screen is framed and lit to conjure an ocean beach, and the floor before it is covered in beach sand and ragged weeds. The puppets depict rising and falling surf, then fish jumping out of and back into the water, augmented by the crash of waves and call of seagulls from C. Andrew Meyer's terrific sound design.
Lights come up on a seaside cabin on the Pacific coast in Washington state. The cabin–beautifully imagined by set designer Joel Sass–is greatly in need of repair and the land beneath it is threatened by oceanic erosion, but it has been in its family for three generations and is much loved, at least by seventy-five-year-old twin sisters Chris (Barbra Berlovitz) and Cat (Melissa Hart). They had great closeness as children and through their years together at college and nursing school. However, Cat married a man named Max and gave birth to a daughter, Jamie (Tracey Maloney), which set them on different paths with less focus on one another.
Max has passed away, but Cat has continued to live in the city and Chris to live in the remote cabin, where she takes a stab at fishing, meditates on the tides, and chews gummies laced with THC. Now Cat comes to the cabin with distressing news: she has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis–ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Over time–and not much time–she will lose use of her muscles: first mobility, then her ability to chew and swallow, to toilet herself, to speak, until the muscles of the vital organs no longer function, and Cat will be no more. She has decided to spend her last months at the cabin and wants Chris to be her caregiver. Chris is candid about what Cat should expect, having seen it often in her nursing career, and is supportive of whatever option Cat chooses when the end is upon her: options that might prolong life and options that may lessen time spent in pain, both physical and psychic.
Jamie arrives, distraught by her mother's decision to be at the cabin rather than in a care facility where she could have professional care, casting aside the fact that her aunt has spent her life as a professional caregiver. Jamie wants her mother in the city where she can be close, even though her job in the tech industry demands long hours, leaving her with little time to care for herself, let alone be attentive to her mother. Jamie is also appalled that Chris will honor Cat's wishes if she chooses to shorten her life when the humiliation becomes to much to bear. Here is the crux of the conflict between the three women, all of whom love each other. Intermittently, Chris reads tales of their past from their mother's diary to Cat and the shadow puppets return. As the sisters recount childhood, youth, and young womanhood, speaking in their seventy-year-old voices, we see them experience all kinds of wonderment as stylized puppet images, so that these segments feel like fables of a long-ago time, and the tension around Cat's declining condition, Jamie's resistance to it all and Chris's unvarying advocacy for her sister fade away, and the pleasures of a lives lived wash over us.
Beyond the insightful and wondrously honest play itself, marking Benjamin Benne as a playwright meriting our close attention, three exceptionally fine actors make the family in What / Washed Ashore / Astray feel like people who truly share a blood line and have always known each other. Melissa Hart conveys Cat's terror at what lies ahead, as well as a more general nervousness–we sense that even before her dire diagnosis, she was prone to being a worrier, perhaps the price of parenthood. Barbra Berlovitz imbues Chris with a calm acceptance of life's ebb and flow, no doubt assisted by consumption of those THC gummies. She has a strong spine and a generous heart. Tracey Maloney captures the angst of a mid-career adult, trying to live up to impossible workplace expectations, meet family obligations, and still have a semblance of her own life. Jamie actually makes the greatest transformation in the course of the play, which, as Maloney enacts the role, looks both difficult and believable.
As mentioned, Joel Sass has done a beautiful job with the set design, not only with the interior of the cabin, but also a deck looking out over the Pacific coast, its rot visible, and the boardwalk from deck to cabin that passes in front of the screen on which the puppets perform. The puppets are designed by Oanh Vo and Andrew Young, with distinctive cut-outs to represent young Cat and Chris, and bands of liquid color to indicate the ocean at varying depths and tempers. Amber Brown's costume designs are completely in sync with each character's persona. Kathy Maxwell's lighting shows the turning of day to night to day, and draws focus to wherever the playwright and director want our attention to go.
A play about a person dying might not sound uplifting, but the interplay between Cat's current journey, the enduring presence of her past–its love and adventure, fears and accomplishments–and the transfer of love from one who leaves to those who carry on make What / Washed Ashore / Astray heartwarming and hopeful. There is sadness, to be sure, but we are reminded that sadness felt upon someone's death is testament to how much richer we are from having traveled life with them. That What / Washed Ashore / Astray succeeds in doing this is a credit to playwright Benne, director Raymond, the cast, and the creative team. It is top-of-the-line work. I cannot strongly enough encourage you to go.
Now, if only they would consider changing the title.
What / Washed Ashore / Astray continues through April 17, 2023, at the Pillsbury House Theatre, 3501 Chicago Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Regular price tickets are $30, Pick-your-price tickets are $5 to $25. For tickets and information, please call 612-825-0459 or visit pillsburyhouseandtheatre.org. Face masks are required at Pillsbury House + Theatre.
Playwright: Benjamin Benne; Director: Noël Raymond; Set Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Light Design: Kathy Maxwell; Puppet Design: Oanh Vu, Andrew Young; Prop Design: Kellie Larson; Technical Director: Gaea Dill-D'Ascoli; Stage Manager: Z Makila; Assistant Stage Manager: Andi Mickle; Production Manager: Elizabeth R. MacNally; Producing Directors: Signe V. Harriday and Noël Raymond.
Cast: Izzy Alesna (puppeteer), Barbra Berlovitz (Chris), Melissa Hart (Cat), Tracey Maloney (Jamie), Oanh Vu (puppeteer), Andrew Young (puppeteer).