BWW Reviews: Eastbound Theatre Presents TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY'
One of the great pleasures of reviewing Connecticut theater is learning about new and innovative theater spaces. This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a performance by Eastbound Theatre, a division of the Milford Fine Arts Council. From the outside, it is hard to imagine that a theater in the Milford railroad station would be a comfortable experience, but its inviting interior, vaulted ceilings, and small stage make it appear bigger on the inside. It is the perfect intimate setting for their current production, Michael Brady's To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday.
I knew this production was going to be special when I first viewed the stage upon entering the theater. This haunting tale of family, love, loss, grief, and acceptance takes place over the course of a weekend at an island beach house. The set design by Kevin Pelkey is perfectly detailed and authentic for our New England shores. It is truly beautiful, and along with the lighting design by Ann Baker and sound design by Tom Rushen, it is easy to imagine that we really are at a picturesque shoreline vacation home.
The tragedy that has befallen the family residing in the home makes it anything but idyllic, however. David has been widowed for 2 years. He is still grieving his dearly departed wife, Gillian, who disturbingly met her demise by falling from a mast on a family sailing trip. In his grief, David stopped teaching college, and spends his days and nights staring at the ocean, talking to himself and imagining conversations with his dead wife. He is so obsessed with her ghost that he becomes, in essence, an absentee father to his 16-year-old daughter Rachel, who is disturbed by his alarming behavior and in need of parental guidance herself.
On this particular weekend, which happens to be the anniversary of Gillian's death, they are visited by Gillian's psychologist sister Esther and her husband Paul. Both of them think it is time for David to move on, and they bring along a surprise female guest named Kevin, in a clumsy attempt at matchmaking. Also along for the weekend visit is Rachel's best friend Cindy, a young lady who seems to have a crush on her best friend's dad. This particular combination of good intentions, bad timing, and emotional instability provide all the fixings for an awkward and potentially volatile weekend.
What is great about Michael Brady's script is that each character is fully fleshed out, allowing each actor to access elements of sadness, humor, youth, wisdom, friendship and love in all their varying degrees. Under the skillful direction of Nancy A. Herman, the local cast, hailing from Woodbridge, Westport, Milford, and Stratford, all aptly fulfill their roles as pieces of this dysfunctional family but are also able to surprise us with deeper, hidden elements that play against type.
John Bachelder is perfect as David, a man stuck in the pain, anger, guilt, and depression stages of grief. Mr. Bachelder easily lets us empathize with David's grief, and astounds us as he slides easily from reverie to rage when faced with not only the loss of his wife, but the potential loss of his daughter when it is suggested that she might be better off living with her aunt.
Leigh Katz is truly amazing as Esther and seems to fit into the role with an ease that says she was born for the stage. Marc Hartog is also a pleasure to watch as Esther's husband Paul who provides a comedic element to the weekend in his role as the beleaguered spouse and buffer between his assertive wife and David. I thought that Alisson Wood, as Kevin, seemed a little young to be a romantic interest for David, but she worked well in her scenes where she befriends and becomes a confidante to Rachel.
Deanna Hartog is terrific as Rachel, alternately acting out Rachel's sadness over the loss of her mother, concern for her father's well being, fear of being abandoned by her father, and all of the uncertainties that arise from being a 16-year-old girl. I particularly liked the scenes she shared with Emily Pisarra who plays Cindy, her friend with the tough exterior that hides the awkwardness and vulnerability of a girl in the throes of an unrequited crush with an older man. Together, Ms. Hartog and Ms. Pisarra are totally believable as best friends who lean on each other in the best and worst of times.
Rounding out the cast is Kimberley Lowden as Gillian, the woman whose death is the catalyst for all of the grief in the play. She touches her family with her very presence. A beautifully haunting image was when she stood hovering just over Rachel as she sat forlornly wishing her dead mother a happy birthday. Gillian is at once a loving and exasperating force with David, bewitchingly leading him, and the audience, back to the surprising truth that once unearthed, brings David back to the present and the potential for a new future.
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday is an emotionally charged play that ends on a satisfyingly hopeful note. It runs through June 22nd at Milford Center for the Arts, 40 Railroad Avenue, Milford, CT. Call 203-878-6647 or visit Milford Center for the Arts for tickets.
Photo: John Bachelder and Deanna Hartog. Photo Credit Danielle Boyke