Michael L. Quintos
OnStage Los Angeles Critic
COSTA MESA, CA - One of the many important questions people have about human life itself involves what happens after life itself ends—when our body ceases to sustain itself on its own. Some schools of thought feel we re-enter the world as brand new beings (human or otherwise) when we die. Others feel we merely disappear. Then there are those, particularly with strong religious beliefs, who feel that we all eventually either ascend to join our maker up above in heavenly repose or get yanked harshly to burn down in the fiery depths below for all eternity.
This centuries-old, thought-provoking debate that often tests one's faith (or lack thereof) is thrust front-and-center in playwright Bekah Brunstetter's pleasing world premiere play 'GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE,' which continues performances at Costa Mesa's Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory through March 27, 2016. This stirring SCR-commission helmed by SCR artistic director Marc Masterson marks this new play's first full-scale production after its well-received reading at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival… and after experiencing the play here first-hand, it's certainly understandable why. Touching and brilliantly performed, the play explores a wonderfully hopeful view of what it means for a person to "move on."
This entire idea of an afterlife has suddenly become the dominant thought for an adorably married couple of advanced age Roberta and Joe—winningly played by SCR favorites Linda Gehringer and Hal Landon Jr.—who we first meet exchanging hushed commentary to one another as they sit, half-attentive, in a pew at the rear of a church. Their snarky barbs, whispered back-and-forth with the delightful zeal of school children, signals not only of a loving, long-time relationship most of us would envy, but also, that they aren't frequent parishioners here at this particular house of worship.
We soon learn that they're supposed to be in the midst of a rather solemn service—a funeral, to be exact—but the two are nonetheless infectiously giddy throughout (which, in turn, makes us, the audience, giggle with them, too). But the mature pair have found themselves in an unnerving recent pattern of having to go to church much more frequently lately for funerals. The two of them aren't very religious, either, so their attendance at such gatherings has an extra layer of trepidation.
Almost instantly, the pair's easy rapport endears them to the audience—they're just the kind of grandparents we all wish we had: acutely funny, surprisingly aware, and even a little bit bawdy. The same personality traits can certainly be found in their very analytic granddaughter Ellie (Rebecca Mozo), who lives in a different city—far enough to keep a comfortable distance between her and her grandparents.
When we first see Ellie, she's just waking up from a one-night-stand with a likable, shaggy-haired fellow named Jonas (Christopher Thornton). It's abundantly (and awkwardly) clear that the two just met, but yet their continued morning-after conversation suggests otherwise. The two couldn't be more perfect for each other if they were written as so (oh, wait...). You can tell right away the two are smitten.
Brunstetter, as expected, doesn't waste time in drawing ideological and spiritual parallels between Ellie and Roberta. And in a wonderfully matter-of-fact reveal, we also learn that (slight spoiler alert) Jonas requires a wheelchair to move about—a minor little piece of info that only seems to make Ellie like him even more. It's not hard, though. The charming Jonas lobs witticisms with her with equal aplomb.
A bit later, following an awkward phone call, Ellie reluctantly visits her grandparents due to a surprise emergency. Roberta—whose head is already spinning with thoughts about her impending demise—is faced with a genuine scare that upends her thinking. While getting a much-needed MRI to examine her aching back, she unexpectedly dies for a moment, but returns to life minutes later with a new outlook. During her little sojourn in the afterlife, she finally meets face-to-face with a glowing figure in white (well, tones of white with hints of shimmering sandy sparkle, anyway) who kept hovering in her vicinity while she was still alive "on earth." The mysterious stranger (played with adorable sweetness by Stephen Ellis) turns out to be her assigned guardian angel of sorts, watching over her with a protective, virtual embrace of and some welcome explanations of what awaits her when her time on earth comes to an end.
For Roberta, her pleasant, beautifully utopian view of the afterlife that she briefly visited—her idea of heaven, that is—is one filled with all the lovely things she specifically loves about life as a mortal, only wonderfully heightened and in abundant excess (weight gain isn't a concern here, eat all the ice cream you can!). It's also one where a special someone from her past awaits her arrival with great anticipation—a reunion so heartwarming, I even shed a little tear.
Armed with this insight, the revived Roberta feels more than ready to face her eventual parting from this earth—in fact, she's almost looking forward to it... and all the more after a rather grim medical diagnosis. Her devoted husband Joe, for his part, is utterly heartbroken.
Sweetly dramatized without being preachy either for or against the adherence to faith, GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE creates a safe space for love and goodness to thrive, even in the midst of unfair ailments or tragic circumstances. Roberta may not be devoutly religious, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's automatically excluded from a beautiful "heaven" of happiness and fulfillment that good people like her deserve. The play makes a convincing case in favor of such a lovely, much-deserved parting gift—that we all, too, in a way, wish similarly for ourselves.
This hopeful supposition is all the more believable in the capable acting chops of Ms. Gehringer, who gives her laudable performance as Roberta a quiet vulnerability and palpable strength that her character so richly exudes with every appearance. She gives one of the most searing, most heart-tugging performances I've seen on this stage. She beams with such vivid, unbridled joy in the play's latter half, particularly in her inspired, kind exchanges with Landon Jr., Ellis, and Mozo, who all also each have their own shining moments. Landon Jr elicits tears among us as his Joe aches quietly (then, later, openly) at the thought of losing his true love. My gosh, what an emotional, 180-degree turn from his cantankerous portrait of Scrooge at SCR every Christmas!
Mozo effectively causes some initial tension in her scenes with her character's grandfather and lover, respectively, then reveals an affectionate side. Thornton's every guy persona is convincingly lovable while Ellis—angelic in face and mannerisms—acts exactly like someone you'd expect to greet you at the Pearly Gates.
I must say... hurray!! for a play where every single character on stage is deserving of a big bear hug from the audience.
Technically speaking, the play makes great use of Tom Ontiveros' purposeful lighting designs to set the moods while Michael B. Raiford's modern-minimalist set pieces convey the idea of open environments—the kind that are easily navigated by an omniscient figure watching over our every move. The final wow-moment set, the show's largest, which only gets revealed in the play's final minutes, realizes Roberta's final wish with an effective, punctuated payoff.
Ms. Brunstetter—a TV screenwriter by day—should be very proud of her accomplishments with this first full production of her latest new stage work. Running at a well-paced, appropriately timed 1 hour and 20 minutes (without an intermission), the play takes all of us to heaven and back... and back to heaven again in record time.
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Photos by Debora Robinson for South Coast Repertory.
Bekah Brunstetter's 'GOING TO A PLACE WHERE YOU ALREADY ARE' continues performances at South Coast Repertory through March 27, 2016. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.