Among the pivotal works of modern literature, novels like “Infinite Jest” and “Finnegan’s Wake” have proven so dense, so abstract, so impenetrable as to be nearly adaptation-proof. You can add to that list David Grossman’s genre-defying “Falling Out of Time,” a dense meditation on loss and grief that blends poetry, prose, and drama. Theater J accepted the challenge of staging Grossman’s enigmatic work, resulting in an engrossing, uneven production that blends moments of sublime humanity with stretches of pure bewilderment.
The production opens on a ramshackle town of mournful souls, each shattered by the loss of their children years before. In the book, Grossman’s distilled his trauma following his own son’s death in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon War into a rainbow of distraught personas. A rumpled school teacher (Leo Erickson) slumps against a faded chalkboard while endlessly practicing arithmetic. A midwife (Nora Achrati) absentmindedly washes a blanket while her husband the cobbler, (Rafael Untalan) angrily pounds an anvil.
Edward Christian’s gruff “centaur” (half man, half desk) scribbles away at a novel that will never be finished. And all the while, a dusty scribe documents the misery that has seeped into every corner of the benighted town. It’s a bleak purgatory that channels the emotional devastation that one can imagine follows the loss of a child.
The cast discusses the desire to go “There” and succumb to “Noneness” – seemingly a reference to departing their mortal coil and joining their children in the afterlife. The Chronicler, played with bumbling charm by the amiable Michael Russotto, slowly cracks the tough exterior of each villager with probing inquiries. As each character grapples with the gravity of their loss, they slowly wake from their morose trance.
The Centaur proves to be more than gruff comic relief as he unfurls his moving father-son story, while the Teacher flashes back to happier times when his classroom hummed with life. Meanwhile another Man (Joseph Wycoff) climbs from the depths of depression to find new purpose, and even the Chronicler is forced to confront his own buried traumas. The cast moves slowly but surely toward some greater sense of closure and community, and it’s all very emotional.
But to what end? The committed performances and mood setting amount to a novel, yet meandering lesson on the five stages of grief. Director Derek Goldman’s cast lurches toward a hazy conclusion through set designer Misha Kachman’s ambitiously deconstructed world, alternating between peaks of touching revelation and lows of overwrought, fumbled emotion. I often felt like I was under the effect of some mystery drug during the 90 minute runtime; every time I grasped some logical thread of what was unfolding, it slipped away just as quickly.
Maybe that’s on the production, or maybe it can be chalked up to the truly disorienting nature of Grossman’s source material. Whatever the case, something feels like it got lost in translation from page to stage.
Falling Out of Time is an ambitious, frequently mystifying journey through Grossman’s layered commentary on loss and life thereafter. The production offers several strong performances and powerful imagery to any audience member game enough to cut through the haze. Whatever the audience’s ultimate verdict, Falling is a truly unique entry in Theater J’s distinguished timeline.
Falling Out of Time . Based on the Novel by David Grossman – Adapted and Directed by Derek Goldman . Starring Nora Achrati, Edward Christian, Leo Erickson, Nanna Ingvarsson, John Lescault, Erika Rose, Michael Russotto, Rafael Untalan, Joseph Wycoff . Scenic Design by Misha Kachman . Lighting Design by Colin K. Bills . Music/Sound Design by Eric Shimelonic . Costume Design by Ivania Stack . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Ben Demers.