You're 39 and have faced a lot of loss in your life. Suddenly you get the chance to spend two hours with a happy, free-spirited twentysomething version of yourself. What do you say to her? Do you try to warn of danger ahead -- who's going to hurt her, how much sorrow she's going to endure? Or do you try to learn something from her, recapture part of who you were, before painful experience hardened you into someone you never planned to be?
Oh, and by the way, you've already read your own obituary, so it looks like things have ended rather badly.
Maura Campbell's powerful, thought-provoking new work for the stage, Tying Up Sandima, takes this bold approach to addressing issues that in lesser hands could have become cliched. Directed by the Burlington-based author, the production had some ragged edges in its premiere run at the Waterfront Theater. But with one stellar lead performance and several strong supporting turns, its overall impact is profound.
Contemporary theater is glutted with plays about mid-life crisis, alcoholism, failed marriage, suicide, mental illness and families with not enough "fun" in their dysfunction. Sometimes it's enough to make the modern theatergoer scream, "Put down the bottle, get some therapy . . . and pass me the Shakespeare!" But Campbell takes on this list of trite-but-true modern ills while asking a more universal, and far more intriguing, question: What can the younger and older parts of ourselves teach each other?
As Act I begins, Jeanne awakens in a heap on the floor, damp and confused, wearing black satin pajamas. Everything else in the spare room is black, her obituary is in the newspaper, and the Cuban music is very loud. Is this purgatory, or hell? In flits Amy, a breezy ray of sunshine in a gauzy yellow-and-white babydoll nightgown, followed shortly by her husband Carlos, whom Jeanne recognizes as her first husband. It soon dawns on Jeanne that Amy is her own younger self.
The plot is a surreal partial recap of Jeanne's life: what happens in her marriage to Carlos that triggers the chain of tragedy, and the events in her second marriage to Morgan that immediately precede her demise. Sexy Carlos is not just a Cuban singer and chef, but a drug dealer who gets caught. Sentenced to a long prison term, he begs Jeanne to find another father for their daughter Laurie -- and to tell the girl that he died in a plane crash. Accountant Morgan seems a reliable choice, but he makes a cold husband and an inappropriately warm stepfather. Merlot, Chardonnay and self-deception become Jeanne's constant companions.
At the heart of the story is the relationship between Jeanne and Amy. Their wary banter warms, then becomes playful and full of insight; as friendship blossoms, so does their urge to protect each other from harm. Jeanne warns Amy about Carlos' dark side; Amy shows Jeanne that Morgan is a liar with "hot eyes" for Laurie. But if Jeanne's scary predictions convince Amy to opt out of her painful future, then the rest of Jeanne's life will never have happened.
Campbell doesn't make the It's a Wonderful Life scenario explicit, but she implies it. Jeanne may feel like a failure, but she has made a difference. Her daughter is a bright, politically aware teen who wants to spend her birthday attending a pro-choice march in Washington. Jeanne's special-needs theater student, Junior, loves the games she creates and is devoted to her. As Jeanne and Amy grow closer, each sees qualities the other has overlooked in herself. Each becomes focused on saving the other.
As Amy, Xana Wolff was a bundle of sprightly energy. In her physical movements and facial expressions, she radiated lightness, sparkle and zest, embodying a spirit undampened by years of suffering. She showed great range -- lust with Carlos, rage at Morgan -- and provided delicious comic relief in Laurie's birth scene and when playing psychiatrist with a pair of dorky glasses.
Kelly Thomas captured Jeanne's world-weariness with a tired, hang-dog expression appropriate to a character who actually expresses relief at being dead. But this interpretation became relentless after awhile, unleavened by softness or humor. Part of the problem was audibility: Hers was one of the voices that seemed to get swallowed up at normal speaking volume. Because of this, some of her sarcastic remarks got lost. It remains to be seen whether this was a product of actors who failed to project their voices sufficiently, or an acoustical issue with the new theater space.
The musical acoustics were fine, however. Carlos was played by Alejandro Torrens, lead vocalist of the Latin band Grupo Sabor. His singing was sultry, and the band played offstage between acts and occasionally during scenes to complement the action. Although the music could have been more smoothly integrated, it helped conjure a sensuous, magical atmosphere. As an actor, though, Torrens played Carlos with casual affability, not the seductive machismo required by the pivotal role. His speaking voice was also sometimes hard to hear, and his lines occasionally overran or got stepped on by other actors.
Supporting performances were well executed across the board. As the straight-laced psychiatrist Dr. Leonard, Jason Lorber struck a perfect seriocomic blend of self-importance and über-geekiness, qualities perhaps honed in his day job as a State Representative. David Tilley, as the simple-minded but big-hearted Junior, razor-scootered around the stage bursting with over-the-top energy. Bridgett Eisler effectively conveyed Laurie's loose-limbed teen vibe, while Dennis McSorley was menacing as the scowling, fatheaded Morgan.
Also woven throughout the play were the lithe acrobatics of Circus Smirkus veteran Beth Carpenter. In Cuban culture, the impish spirit Sandima hides things, such as keys or the phone, and what is lost will be found by tying him up in a red scarf. As the physical embodiment of Sandima, Carpenter coiled and unfurled herself behind a scrim, although her remarkable movements would have added more thematic punch had they been used more sparingly.
Execution of some of the show's technical aspects was sloppy, and it's hard to know how to apportion responsibility between the show and the venue. The black panels at the back of the set did not fully conceal the backstage movements of the cast and crew, who tiptoed around trying not to be seen. Also distracting was the remarkably scuffed condition of the stage's week-old black floor. Lighting was not particularly inventive, perhaps a product of having to hang one set of lights to serve three different shows, and sometimes Sandima was writhing behind her scrim completely unlit. While the program lists Robert Cady as technical director, no one is credited for either set or lighting design.
Despite some less-than-perfect production elements, Tying Up Sandima is definitely worth a trip to the Waterfront. For anyone familiar with loss -- and by middle age, that's most of us -- the play hits close to the bone. It challenges us to engage in a dialogue with who we used to be. It asks us to choose: Read our own obituary now, or use some of that innocent energy to move forward, even in the face of what may seem like a tsunami of grief. It may sound as if Sandima requires too much emotional heavy lifting for a summer's evening, but in fact it is surprisingly liberating. Sandima is a tricky little sprite. Better not to ask just how he works his magic.