The universal conundrum of the end of life takes center stage in Bekah Brunstetter’s thoroughly engaging new play Going to a Place where you Already Are, now in its world premiere run at South Coast Repertory. The great dichotomy… is there nothing or something after death? Nothing is easy to understand. Life emerges from a void and returns to it. If something, what is it? What is the nature of it? All of the considerations hinge on notions of belief.
The play opens at a funeral service in a church. The voice of the pastor can be heard reciting words from the Sarum Hymnal of 1514, “God Be In My Head and In My Understanding.” Joe (Hal Landon Jr.), a man of seventy and an Atheist, and his wife, Roberta (Linda Gehringer), sixty-six, quietly mock the droning man of God. It soon becomes apparent that Roberta is not a die hard Atheist and a sharp, albeit quiet, discussion ensues. But when the congregation rises to sing the hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” Roberta breaks down in tears of powerful emotion. She wonders with all her heart where the deceased is going, unable to accept that there is nothing after death. As the opening scene closes a glowing Angel in the form of a young man (Stephen Ellis) appears with a sympathetic expression on his beatific face. He makes regular appearances throughout the rest of the play.
With great heart and no small amount of humor, Going to a Place where you Already Are is a tale of the end of life and its effects on those destined to be left behind. During a “routine” MRI scan, Roberta has a death experience of a kind that many people have reported, and encounters the Angel. It is too soon for her to go to Heaven, however, and she awakens to a distraught Joe and the news that she has cancer.
In the secondary plot line, we encounter Joe and Roberta’s granddaughter, Ellie (Rebecca Mozo), lying in bed with Jonas (Christopher Thornton) after a vigorous night of spontaneous sex. Ellie is a brittle achiever with low self-esteem and Jonas is an insightful guy who sees more in her than she can see in herself. And the fact that Jonas gets around in a wheel chair is of no real consequence to either of them. While their attraction to each other is palpable, Ellie rejects the idea of something more than a one-night stand. It is significant, however, that Ellie is a smoker, as was Roberta.
There is a lot going on in this gentle, romantic fantasy, end of life decisions among them. The notion of doing everything medically possible to achieve a longer life span, which is generally recognized as an extremely unpleasant, often painful, ultmately futile affair, comes in conflict with the desire to die with dignity and comfort with loved ones close. The story calls to mind Atul Gawande’s best selling book Being Mortal.
Since the idea of smoking and the consequences thereto is an important element of the plot, it is refreshing to see the players actually smoke real cigarettes, which is most often not the case in modern theatre performance. To see smoke exhaled in a cloud as wisps from the cigarette tip curl up makes a powerful impression. And to catch a whiff in the audience, while it may offend some, added a welcomed verismo to the action.
The cast, under the inspired direction of South Coast Rep’s Artistic Director, Marc Masterson, is excellent. The physical production is first rate with a fluid set by Michael Raiford (lighting by Tom Ontiveros) that has set pieces smoothly moving on and off with platforms and elevators. Costuming by Christina Wright is ideal, fitting character and situation. And Vincent Olivieri’s sound design is impeccable.
This play has legs. Expect to see it produced many time in many places.Going to a Place where you Already Are runs through March 27 on the Julianne Argyros Stage of South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.