BWW Reviews: Funny and Touching REST Makes World Premiere at South Coast Rep
Last season, South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa's Tony Award-winning regional theater currently celebrating its 50th season, produced a top-notch, emotionally-gripping West Coast production of Samuel D. Hunter's play called THE WHALE. In its riveting, superbly crafted portrait of a morbidly obese, home-confined man wrestling with the metaphorical and physical demons that haunt him, the play was one of the most memorable and heartbreaking character studies I have ever witnessed on stage. With that in mind, it eventually landed in my year-end best-of list as my favorite non-musical play of last season.
To say that THE WHALE is a tough act to follow is certainly an understatement, particularly since the play actually had me sitting in my car for quite a while after leaving the theater fully sobbing as I jotted down notes of praise on my pad---much of which eventually got woven into the paragraphs of my review. Nonetheless, in a very wise move, SCR has once again commissioned a fully-realized rendering of another Hunter play, this time in a world premiere production debuting right here in Orange County.
Lucky us. While, sure, this newer play didn't affect me quite as viscerally as THE WHALE did last season, Hunter's current terrific follow-up---which, like THE WHALE, is also helmed by director Martin Benson---is already shaping up to be one of my favorite plays of this theatrical season as well.
Touching, richly-staged and beautifully-acted, REST---Hunter's oh-so-engrossing and oh-so-funny new play now being performed at SCR through April 27---presents a disheartening reality of life we all must face sooner or later: that getting older is, for the most part, no fun, especially as one enters the twilight phase of their time on the planet.
The play not only exposes how we as a society "deal" with our elders (the good and the bad), but also how the elderly themselves must bravely cope with the unfortunate, unstoppable, and sometimes painful side-effects of aging. On paper, such matters make REST sound like a ten-hanky melodrama---and, yes, there are indeed plenty of opportunities for tears. But what really hits you as a delightful surprise is the amount of wit and humor that bellows from the stage---even as the play's overarching dark themes are circling above like ravenous buzzards waiting for their next meal.
I never would have predicted how much laughter could be wrung out of a work of fiction that takes place entirely inside a retirement home (well, outside of Cocoon, of course), but REST certainly delivered hearty chuckles throughout its two acts. Much of that genuine, often endearing humor comes directly from Hunter, who seems to have a real knack for writing dialogue that's encapsulated into seemingly ordinary yet highly stimulating conversations that feel sincere and honest.
Of course, some of the exchanges are incredibly awkward as well, adding to the hilarity.
As expected, the minutia of these exchanges and interactions provide us with deep wells for each character, giving the audience a glimpse into their lives---thereby exposing their joys, regrets, flaws, and vulnerabilities---and making us actually care about the people in the room. It's something superb, engaging stage plays can only bring about, and REST is an excellent example of such theatrical prowess.
Set in the present day in seemingly middle-of-nowhere Idaho (a staple of Hunter's plays; understandable since he grew up there), REST drops us into the time-worn lobby/front room of a retirement home on the brink of closure. With boxes packed and wall frames removed (just a few of the many hard-to-miss details in John Iacovelli's convincingly lived-in set), the leftover staff members---and one young, nervous new temp---are braving the winter weather outside to care for the three remaining residents still living at the soon-to-shutter assisted living facility.
We first meet sweet but ornery Etta (the riveting Lynn Milgrim) knitting away while jittery young Ken (the always adorkable Wyatt Fenner) listens intently to her every word, as if she's some kind of wisdom-spewing oracle with all the answers to the universe. Ken, doe-eyed and intensely Jesus-loving (and prone to bouts of debilitating anxiety), has just been hired to be the home's temporary cook---well, at least for the next three days---and is waiting in the lobby for his license and paperwork.
During his wait time, Taco Bell-trained Ken also meets Etta's 91-year-old husband Gerald (SCR founding artist Richard Doyle) who wanders into the common room very dazed and very confused. It's sadly obvious that the once prominent music professor is now suffering from late-stage dementia. Etta, ever the doting wife, tries her best to calm her husband down, even though he doesn't even recognize her.
"He has some good days," Etta explains, matter-of-factly. "Well, had. Good days are behind us at this point."
Ken, understandably, finds this heartbreaking. And, yes, so does the audience.
"It's hard to watch someone you love slowly disappear."
The following day, the home's staff is in crisis mode: overnight, Gerald has suddenly gone missing. What's worse, a powerful snow storm is growing stronger outside, making the search effort more difficult. And it doesn't help matters that the front automatic sliding glass doors keep opening and closing on their own (though admittedly, for the audience, this becomes a reliably hilarious running gag).
We are soon introduced to friendly co-workers---and long-time BFFs---Ginny (Libby West) and Faye (Sue Cremin), who are trying to keep calm but also busy by continuing to pack up and, of course, look after the needs of Etta and the home's other remaining resident Tom (SCR founding artist Hal Landon Jr.), a man of very few words (the staffers suspect he's mostly deaf; in reality, Tom prefers not to contribute to the drama, even though he proves to be highly observant nonetheless).
Later, we learn a not-so-hidden secret: that Faye is actually pregnant, and that she is a surrogate on behalf of Ginny and her husband. Faye's trepidation of people knowing about their arrangement opens up a whole other can of worms that the two argue about constantly in uneasy, whispered tones.
Meanwhile, their boss Jeremy (the wonderfully nebbishy Rob Nagle) is slowly coming apart on the inside as the closure of the facility begins to inch closer and closer to fruition. Gerald's recent disappearance certainly doesn't help with his nerves, causing him to question his choice of moving from sunny New Mexico to blizzard-pummeled Northern Idaho two years earlier after getting a divorce. Now unemployed, he must now figure out what to do next.
"I think God has a plan for you," Ken offers with genuine sincerity. Awkward pause.
Tensions continue to mount as Gerald remains missing while a powerful winter storm builds up outside, blanketing the isolated retirement home in impassable piles of snow. Will they find Gerald in time or has he succumbed to the harshness of mother nature?
More so here than in THE WHALE, Hunter really knows how to mine humor out of the silliness of everyday actions and odd, awkward situations---and, most importantly---the wacky (albeit intriguing) people that such situations embody. Even the sad, emotional tones that surround the play can often give way to humor in a very natural, non-manipulative way. In doing so, we are able to laugh at the characters and their foibles, easing our ability to find a human connection with them. And, similarly, feeling empathy for the characters is not difficult at all when you become this invested in such layered, well-formed characters.
All this, natch, is helped tremendously by REST's impressive cast. SCR veterans Landon Jr and Doyle bring humor and gravitas to their mini roles, while Cremin and West provide ample emotional support. Fenner, Hunter's muse of sorts, is such an intriguing actor to watch every time he takes the stage (Hunter specifically wrote the role of Ken for him after such impressive work in last year's THE WHALE). From his subtle speech nuances to his overt mannerisms, this young actor continues to be a welcome presence at SCR. Nagle, for his part, displays impeccable comic timing and nails every awkward pause and exasperated heave to hilarious results (I found myself laughing out loud every single time he cursed for some reason).
Of course, REST---pardon the pun---rests squarely on the sweater-swathed shoulders of Etta, played with great dignity and emotional power by Milgrim. There are times when the pain on her face is just too palpable for Etta to conceal, and to witness her feelings proves to be quite heartbreaking and devastating. But we also smile in delight whenever she allows her cantankerous musings to fly out (the gal certainly knows how to throw shade).
As expected, such close-knit relationships often tests the limits of what one can do for (and tolerate about) people thrown together---by chance or by circumstance---inside a self-contained environment. That familiar scenario of "trapping" a diverse set of people in an environment with no exit (particularly, one that is shut-off from civilization due to a blizzard) forces everyone to interact, deal with common problems, and maybe even divulge a bit of personal information with one another in the process.
This has always been a useful tool to provide a dramatic jump-off point, and in this play, it is no exception. REST uses such a scenario to expose secrets and inner longings for each of the characters (although, I must admit, my sole gripe with the play is that I do wish some of Ginny and Faye's drawn-out conversations would have been trimmed a bit more, only because their conflict feels, frankly, a bit forced). Additionally, John Iacovelli's incredibly-detailed and authentically-aged lobby set is itself a living character of its own, mirroring the effects of advanced years its own residents must endure. It's a cheeky presence too, particularly its unruly sliding door---constantly opening for no one, yet wickedly uncooperative when someone really needs it to.
And if there's one thing we've gleaned from watching decades of workplace dramas and comedies, it's that they often reveal something quite natural about human interactions: the eventual development of an ad-hoc family. More often than not, co-workers fight, care about, argue with, hurt, celebrate and even rescue each other so comfortably that they almost become just as important to our lives as those that actually share DNA with us, if not more.
The fact that REST takes place in a nursing home only gives solid evidence to this very notion of workplace-created "families." Within the weathered walls of a facility whose very purpose is to provide food, shelter and human caring---in this case, for the elderly---well, the creation of family-like relationships seems fairly inevitable (even if one of them literally just walked in the door the day before as an awkward, high-strung temp).
Watching this "family" care for one another during a crisis is perhaps why the play is so very relatable. It also explains, too, why by the time a big revelation is unveiled to close out the first act (a predictable, yet still gasp-inducing "cliffhanger" which I will dare not spoil for you), the audience has already become so invested in the various troubles of this "family" that it's not hard to be enticed to see how the rest of REST plays out.
And, believe me, you'll want to stay for all of it, particularly the final heartbreaking scene that will make you want to call your grandparents right away.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by Debora Robinson/SCR. From top: The staff tries to calm Etta (Lynn Milgrim) after her husband goes missing; Etta shares her story with new hire Ken (Wyatt Fenner); Tom (Hal Landon Jr) talks with Etta; the staff (Sue Cremin, Rob Nagle, Libby West) try to keep warm; Etta kisses her husband Gerald (Richard Doyle) goodnight.
Performances of the world premiere of REST continue at South Coast Repertory through April 27, 2014. Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.