How does an enviably perfect, fortunate family cope with senseless tragedy? The Nash clan takes a rather curious route — song.
In Tracy Thorne’s promising new play, We Are Here, we see the various members of this family losing their poise and their luck for the first time in their lives after the death of Eli (the extraordinarily composed and watchful young actor Barrington Walters, Jr.), the young son of golden child Billie (a radiant Crystal A. Dickinson), a woman previously known as “Miss Happy Pants” and for her talent for being “savagely happy.”
The illness and death of her child plunges Billie into uncharted territory, as grief consumes her like a ceaseless flame. She wanders through the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband Hal (Cary Donaldson), an altruistic sort suddenly at a loss on how to help the woman he loves, incapable of doing anything but talk to her dead son, who in the afterlife has evolved into a charmingly wise and street-savvy adolescent.
These conversations sometimes comfort, sometimes confront Billie, who has become the angry antithesis of her former sunny self. Eli hates seeing his mother so mad, viewing this extreme personality change as his fault for dying. Naturally, the rest of the family is concerned about Billie’s chats from beyond the grave until they begin to see and talk to Eli too.
We Are Here swings between the joyful and blessed past – and their traditional family singalongs— and its pain-filled present as the characters try to figure out how to crawl back to life.
Up to this point, the Nash’s have had it pretty cushy—and they know it. Swaddled in wealth, privilege and the confidence, the family has been thrown for a loop, to say the least. Shawn (Stacey Sargeant), the barbed and less shiny sibling, is rocked by the tragedy but you get the sense she is secretly thrilled that the sister she resents is finally experiencing hardship. The parents, Everett (the effortlessly charismatic Kurt Zischke) and Vera (Tamara Tunie, recalling Lena Horne in her regal and silkily acerbic portrayal of a queen bee), a glamorous mixed race couple, wonder if Eli’s death is the ultimate comeuppance for being so damn rich and fabulous. Did they tempt fate by taking too much pride in being blessed?
Billie tortures herself as well with this theory, challenging her long-held values of choosing optimism and fun over what she calls a life dedicated to being “misery’s nursemaid.” Maybe if she had been more cynical this would have been easier to bear. But really, is there any way to prepare for the death of your child? How can you cushion the blow of something so awful? Being blindsided seems to be the only way.
We Are Here contains flashes of loveliness, such as Everett serenading his wife with a sexy and soulful rendition of Van Morrison’s “Moondance” and Vera crooning to baby Eli an unconventional lullabye—a sizzling version of “Fever.”
Billie and Hal also convincingly chart the depth of their craziness about each other in a series of scenes, as well as showing how Eli’s birth was the icing on the cake of a charmed life. The last scene, where Eli uses the family’s method of communicating love — singing — to show how much he treasured and appreciated his brief time on earth, is a heartbreaker. Yet this sincere glimpse into how the beautiful people grapple with tragedy is marred by a tendency to overwrite—every revelation is telegraphed in boldface and then underscored.
The playwright also commits the mistake of telling instead of showing. We are constantly being informed just how great the Nash clan is, and if you are still not persuaded, the characters will chatter to each other how much they love each other, how good they look and how much money and opportunity they have until you feel like you are being held hostage by fabulosity. Still, for all this positive PR, you are never convinced that they are a close family or that they even know each other. Otherwise, why would they feel the need to convey so much exposition about the depths of their feelings and their lives together?
A subplot about Billie and Shawn’s unseemly sibling rivalry is equally extraneous and not credible. Judicious pruning and establishing a palpable intimacy between the characters would give We Are Here a certainty and focus that it presently does not possess.
Playing in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepardstown, WVA through July 31.
We Are Here
by Tracy Thorne
Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission