Theatre Review: Available Light’s The Grown-Up: Fabulism with a Glowing Heart and a Bruised Soul
Available Light’s 2015-2016 season officially started this weekend with a bang. Over the years, Available Light has found some of their best material through Louisville’s Humana Festival including last season’s She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen and The Christians by Lucas Hnath (the latter having just begun its Off-Broadway run which is collecting raves). That sweet synchronicity continues with Jordan Harrison’s The Grown-Up which racked up acclaim at the 2014 Humana.
The Grown-Up features six actors, labeled in the program Actor A through Actor F, and at various times each is a variety of characters, an omniscient narrator, and one or more voices in the head of the viewpoint character for that scene. The unchanging set (beautifully designed by Jon Baggs and constructed by Andrew Protopapas and Johanna Breiding) is limned by rectangular tables that feature a pattern that recalls a sidewalk and features a tall lamp post at the back and a chair. It uses this abstraction as a vessel to show us a journey of two full lifetimes, over a hundred years and thousands of miles traveled.
The plot twists in The Grown-Up are so dazzling and so genuinely surprising that this review will endeavor not to give too much away. It opens with Kai Shearwater (Rudy Frias), 10 years old, being told a story by his Grandfather (Travis Horseman) about a doorknob that was once the crystal eye of the wooden mermaid on a pirate ship’s bow. The doorknob, his Grandfather says, can be placed on any door (except the linen closet it currently adorns) and that door will open somewhere else in space and time. This scene is lightened by the playful, flirtatious oneupmanship banter between Horseman and the Grandmother (Elena Perantoni) and overlapping narration both internal and about the scene by David Glover and Michelle Schroeder (the latter of whom slips in and out of the reality of this opening as Kai’s little sister, Annabelle).
Of course, Kai can’t resist trying this doorknob and he finds himself after the first jump as a screenwriter in his 20s, in a sleazy, hyperactive executive’s (Glover) office being maneuvered by his assistant Rosie (Perantoni), telling a story not unlike the story of the doorknob until he feels his brain start to disconnect – he’s 10, he was 10 earlier that day – and we’re all off to the races. The scenes with Kai of varying ages are interspersed with scenes of the pirate ship and the old man who survived a shipwreck with that crystal eye and built the house Kai’s grandparents bought along with mystical-spy-thriller scenes straight out of Tim Powers featuring Kai’s sister trying to find him through the present.
Harrison’s play never forgets the great tragedy and blessing of growing up: time only moves one way. The magic here does not ameliorate that implacable truth and it doesn’t salve its pain, it amplifies and refracts it. It takes the universal feeling of living your life only in key moments with everything else vanishing into a blur around you and explodes it like glittering shrapnel. Often genre tropes like time travel are hard to reconfigure for the physicality of the stage but here the metaphorical implications are in the foreground and the faded line between reality and fantasy complicate each other with pure delight, recalling Borges and Garcia Marquez and Kelly Link. The play’s also self-aware enough to wink at those comparisons with a terrifically funny terrible awards show introduction from David Glover.
This production of The Grown-Up is a case study in how good, how electric, theatre can be when everything lines up. The text is phenomenal but without a deft hand it could fall apart in a puddle of alphabet soup. Eleni Papaleonardos, who has directed many of my favorite Available Light plays, outdoes herself here. There’s never a scene that feels too long or too short, the pacing is cut with a fine razor, unfolding the magic but letting it breathe; it never feels like a puzzle or an exercise. This direction is helped immeasurably by the lighting of Carrie Cox, vitally important with so few technical elements, that’s invisible except in those moments it takes your breath away. Acacia Leigh Duncan’s costumes, particularly on Frias where she has to dress a man from 10 to 88 and not stand out in any of those scenes, are a marvel of perfect simplicity.
Much as this could have been abstracted nonsense without its assured direction, it could have been a riddle inside an enigma without acting as universally strong as it has. Frias carries this on his back, even in the scenes where he’s not the focus, his presence hangs over everything. He has to be convincing as a child and through every other stage through cynicism and ambition and almost-contentment but still be identifiably the same person without the benefit of makeup, costume changes or any other exteriors; it’s an astonishing performance. Close behind is Jordan Fehr who shoulders the difficult task of walking the line between myth and reality, his character has to live in that ambiguity or nothing else works, and he soars – he has two scenes near the end that took my heart right out of my chest.
Perantoni’s characters have less stage time and are more broadly-drawn but she not only sticks every laugh, she imbues these snapshots with a real inner life and a real humanity. By the time she reveals the emotional heart of the play, she’s got the audience far enough in her corner that it doesn’t feel didactic or corny in the slightest. Schroeder’s little sister character could have been an afterthought but her grace, humor and commitment gives it a reality that makes those plot-heavy scenes mesh beautifully with the more intense, metaphysical scenes. Glover has the unenviable task – similarly to Frias, without the benefit of makeup or costume changes – of playing almost everyone else in the play and he handles those quick shifts from person to person and character to narrator with amazing alacrity. Horseman is a rock, with the least showy characters he makes a deep impression and implies the rest of the world in the gaps.
The Grown-Up isn’t just the first great play I’ve seen of the 2015-2016 season – as one of the first three or four plays, I’m not letting it off the hook that easily – it’s one of the finest things I’ve seen all year (and 2015′s been a great year). It’s one of the finest things I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a masterful work of empathy, wonder, and complicated joy.
The Grown-Up runs through October 3rd. Shows at 8:00pm Thursday-Saturday (no show Thursday September 24th). 2:00pm matinee Sunday September 27th. For tickets and more info please visit http://avltheatre.com/shows/grownup/.