BWW Reviews: BEFORE I LEAVE YOU - A Different Cambridge Love Story
Before I Leave You
Written by Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro, Directed by Jonathan Silverstein; Scenic Design, Allen Moyer; Costume Design, Michael Krass; Lighting Design, David Lander; Original Music/Sound Design, David Remedios; Production Stage Manager, Carola Morrone LaCoste; Stage Manager, Ryan A. Anderson
Performances through November 13 by Huntington Theatre Company at the Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org
Your body will be seated in the comfortable auditorium of the Wimberly Theatre in Boston's South End, but your mind will be transported to the environs of Cambridge by Before I Leave You, the premiere of Huntington Playwriting Fellow Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfaro's love story for grownups. The 72-year old Cambridge-based Alfaro, like the sixty-something characters she creates in the play, may be embarking on an exciting new chapter in the third stage of a prolific life, while connecting with the experiences of a substantial and oft-ignored audience demographic.
From the opening scene at the veritable Royal East Chinese Restaurant in Central Square, the actors portraying longtime friends Emily (Kippy Goldfarb), Jeremy (Ross Bickell), Koji (Glenn Kubota), and Trish (Karen MacDonald) inhabit their characters like comfortable old cardigans and interpret Alfaro's dialogue as if their foursome had actually been wielding chopsticks together for four decades. Jeremy's sudden coughing jag is the first inkling that change is coming and sets the tone of concern about his health that will follow him throughout the play and prompt soul-searching questions among the group. Emily, Koji, and Trish are not immune to the winds of change and each of them faces life-altering choices that provide fertile material for dramatic and comic developments.
Alfaro infuses Before I Leave You with a Cambridge sensibility and draws characters that might not exist elsewhere, or at least not with such homogeneity. They are intelligent, well-educated, artistic, and politically liberal, card-carrying members of the Baby Boomer generation who live contentedly with their accomplishments and status in life. The exceptions are Jeremy's younger sister Trish, an out-of-work realtor who has temporarily moved in with him after falling on hard financial times, and Peter (Alexis Camins), the twenty-two year old grocery-bagger son of Emily and Koji. Trish's glaring personality traits stand out in high relief against the couple and her brother who are the norm for their cohort. It is a lot of fun to watch MacDonald, a very smart actress, flesh out the intellectually-challenged Trish, who often puts her mouth in gear before engaging her brain. She is a loose cannon who fires at will, sparking emotional distress in the others as collateral damage.
In addition to his burgeoning medical issues, 64-year-old Jeremy is struggling to complete work on a novel that he refers to as "an old person's book," one that will serve as a repository of his life experiences, full of laments and love songs. Koji longs for the chance to direct King Lear, but, to his dismay, is given the reins for a Japanese internment camp drama, only to connect in unexpected ways with his Asian heritage. While her art work keeps her busy, Emily's focus is on maintaining a relationship with Peter and his Vietnamese girlfriend. Father and son are estranged and mutually antagonistic, a situation which escalates until it eventually involves everyone.
One of the strengths of Alfaro's character-driven script is the interconnectedness of the individual story arcs, although at times, she gets carried away with revealing their reminiscences in her zeal to convince us of the closeness of the foursome. Of course, the playwright could not have known that the acting would be strong enough to illuminate that bond, but it may offer an opportunity for her to revisit and reduce some of the exposition in the first act. Before I Leave You is well-written and solidly constructed, with all scenes occurring in one of three locations - the restaurant, Jeremy's living room, and Koji and Emily's living room. The dialogue rings true because each character speaks with a distinct voice that identifies their place in this constellation of five stars.
Bickell and Goldfarb are both genuine, their facial expressions and body language conveying the shock, awe, and ultimate acceptance of the ongoing challenges and changes they encounter. Their scenes together evoke the ease that exists between old friends and telegraph the deep love they share. Kubota has the unenviable role of playing the heavy when it becomes increasingly evident that Koji views himself as the sun or the moon, but definitely not one of the stars. To his credit, Kubota elicits disdain, or perhaps dislike, but his portrayal tilts toward cliché as the overbearing, unforgiving father and the misunderstood husband. He also stumbled on many of his lines on opening night. As the only cast member without an AARP card, Camins relates well to his elders even as he shoulders the responsibility of representing the struggles of the younger generation. Peter is a boy on the cusp of manhood who balances his desire to strut his independence with the need to show his heartfelt love and respect for both his mother and "Uncle" Jeremy.
Director Jonathan Silverstein handles the numerous scene changes smoothly and gives the actors the benefit of good blocking and pacing. In the background, Allen Moyer's scenic design includes three tall sections of faux bookshelves that resemble library stacks, and each location has its own moveable platform: four chairs around a large table at the restaurant; a leather couch, coffee table, and easy chair surrounded by books in Jeremy's living room; and a sofa, coat rack, and Peter's handmade Chinese cabinet in Emily and Koji's living room. David Lander's lighting design intermittently backlights the books with red or blue and casts interesting shadows on the stacks. Costume designer Michael Krass dresses artsy Emily in loose-fitting, comfortable pants and sweaters, and Trish in flamboyant polyester blouses, tight skirts, and spike heels. After his Asian transformation, Koji uncharacteristically dons a kimono jacket in place of his customary sport coat. Original music and sound design are by David Remedios.
Alfaro shines the spotlight on the not-so-shy-and-retiring members of the community, letting it be known that they have many of the same needs and fears as the younger generation. Their relationships have conflicts that require tweaking or terminating, but they retain their intelligence and their sexuality. There are those who compare this third stage of life to adolescence, as a time to explore both the inner and outer worlds to figure out who you are becoming as a person, recommending it as a time not to retire, but to rewire. In Before I Leave You, Alfaro makes the case for it never being too late to start anew.