You’ve heard of feel-good theater. How about smell-good theater?
A delectable aroma wafts through the Anacostia Playhouse during Going to a Place where you Already Are, the handiwork of Scent Designer Marcus Darnley. Unlike the homey sugar and butter scents drifting into the lobby that immediately ground you in the baking milieu of the Broadway musical Waitress, the fragrance for this play is welcoming, but hard to put your finger on.
All you know is that it is kinda familiar, kinda heavenly.
Which may be exactly the point. Bekah Brunstetter’s new play, Going to a Place where you Already Are, explores life and the afterlife with grace notes and compassionate humor. Fluidly directed by Colin Hovde, the play brings a feathery, assured touch to such heavy topics as death, belief, and religion.
The first scene sets the tone for the play’s mingling of the contemplative and felicitous. An older couple, Roberta (Annie Houston) and Joe (Gregory Ford) are seen cutting up in church like kids let out of Sunday school—snickering at the liturgy and giggling at the eulogy for a coworker Joe admits he barely knew. “Church gives me feelings I can’t stand,” cracks Roberta, who longs to duck outside for a smoke. “Makes me want to vomit and cry.”
Laughter ripples like organ music as the two carry on, which encourages the audience to relax and laugh along. Then an old hymn begins and immediately Roberta is transported to another realm—a place of memory and something less tangible.
The easygoing affection between Roberta and Joe draws you to them, as well as their smart, unaffected banter about organized religion and belief systems, which Joe enjoys picking apart with a mixture of science and skepticism. “We’re all going to expire. Like milk,” he remarks. But Roberta doesn’t want to be like milk and is tantalized by the possibility of something more, something forever.
The play flashes to another couple, equally comfortable with each other. Twentysomethings Ellie (Tricia Homer) and Jonas (MacGregor Arney) loll in bed, an unexpected hook up after he confronts her for parking in a handicapped spot. The cozy morning after soon becomes scratchy as Ellie starts second-guessing herself about being involved with a man in a wheelchair.
The stakes grow higher for Roberta and Joe when a nagging backache reveals advanced cancer. Joe wants to attack her condition with the best medical science and tactics, while Roberta wants to live fully and richly in the time that remains. She’s convinced she had a taste of heaven during a crisis with her MRI procedure and speaks of the Angel (Alan Taylor, who evokes Peter Pan in his boyish, boisterous portrayal) who serves as her celestial guide.
By the way, women will relate to Roberta’s idea of heaven, where you eat “to die for” ice cream whenever you want and calories are not a concern.
Ellie, it turns out, is Joe and Roberta’s grandchild and must stutter and stumble (Ellie has a habit for not being able to get out full sentences) over not knowing what to say or what to do when dealing with a terminally ill loved one. Brunstetter shows us that as with love, being there for the dying involves just blundering through as best you can.
Director Hovde shifts between Ellie’s intimacy problems and uncertainty about Jonas (who turns out not to be a saint-surprise!-but someone not above using his disability to get what he wants) and Roberta and Joe’s purpose-driven union, aided by set pieces that swirl seamlessly on and off stage, make the connections between the characters seem like they are by grand design, rather than randomness.
Brunstetter has a gift for words and some of her lines are jewels, like the halting, oh-God-we-like-each other phone call between Ellie and Jonas, which captures that delicious moment when no one wants to hang up the phone, and just hearing someone’s breath is the sexiest thing ever.
Going to a Place where you Already Are
closes June 26, 2016
Details and tickets
That sweet sexiness pervades Roberta and Joe’s relationship, which still retains enough sizzle that when they talk about condiments and sandwiches, you feel like blushing. Roberta is the warm, beating heart of the play and Houston gives her lightness, earthy sensuality and an unquenched appetite for living and finding out what’s next. Ford is heartbreaking as her rock Joe, a man whose reliance on facts and reason are no help when dealing with love and loss.
As Roberta and Joe’s younger counterparts, Homer gives Ellie the uncertainty of youth, but also gives us hints of the potency and deepness she is capable of. At first, Arney’s Jonas seems too good to be true (he brings Ellie her favorite sandwich when she’s stressed with work) and trying too hard to be liked, but then we see his intricacies and issues.
There aren’t any ground-shaking revelations in Going to a Place where you Already Are, just humor and a sense of reassurance that rises gently out of authentic emotions and situations. What harm is there in believing there’s a heaven? The tricky part lies in not putting so much faith in forever that you miss moments of the divine here on earth.
Going to a Place where you Already Are by Bekah Brunstetter . Directed by Colin Hovde . Featuring: Annie Houston, Gregory Ford, Tricia Homer, MacGregor Arney, Alan Naylor . Assistant Director: Eric Swartz. Scenic design: Brian Gillick. Costume Design: Kara Waala. Lighting Design: Mary Keegan. Sound Design and Original Music: Matthew M. Nielson. Properties and Set Dressing: Patti Kalil . Stage Manager: Kathryn Dooley . Produced by Theater Alliance . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.