BWW Review: World Premiere of Lauren Gunderson's THE HEATH at Merrimack Rep
Written by Lauren Gunderson, Directed by Sean Daniels; Scenic Designer, Tanya Orellana; Costume Designer, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Lighting Designer, María Cristina Fusté; Sound Designer, Danny Erdberg; Projection Designer, Seàghan McKay; Production Stage Manager, Maegan A. Conroy
CAST: Miranda Barnett, George Judy
Performances through March 10 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Patrons of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre are quite familiar with playwright Lauren Gunderson, named the most produced playwright in America by American Theatre Magazine in 2017, most recently for the much-lauded MRT December production of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley which she co-authored with Margot Melcon. MRT now presents the world premiere of Gunderson's The Heath, a heartwarming tribute to the memory of her late grandfather.
Artistic Director Sean Daniels directs the one act two-hander, featuring Miranda Barnett (Lauren) and George Judy (KD Martin/King Lear) as the real-life people in the play. As one might expect, Gunderson does a wonderful job of writing these roles, delving deep into the cross-generational relationship, tracking it across the span of their ages. The marvel is that Barnett and Judy collaborate to inhabit these characters with such care and humanity that the verisimilitude is gripping. Before she strikes the first chord on the banjo, Barnett becomes Lauren, and, upon entering stage right and quietly easing into his wheelchair, Judy is her beloved PawPaw.
The Heath is very much a memory play comprised of monologue, dialogue, music, and projections. Gunderson wrote it while her grandfather was suffering from dementia and, for all intents and purposes, already lost to her. She used the exercise of doing what she does so well as a form of catharsis, combining her farewell to him with an exploration of his life story and an apology for not showing up enough. Her main tools are the inclusion of the banjo and bluegrass music PawPaw loved so much, and repeated metaphorical use of passages from Shakespeare's King Lear, delivered with brio by Judy. Gunderson parallels KD's diminishing mental capacity with Lear's descent into madness, ending with the raging storm that wreaks emotional havoc on her. Authoring the play was her therapy and her salve for self-healing, but it was an arduous journey that resonates for some of us and serves as a cautionary tale for others.
The design elements greatly enhance the conceit used to tell the story, especially Seàghan McKay's projections which help to illustrate some of the shared memories, and the stormy sound (Danny Erdberg) and lighting (María Cristina Fusté) effects of the storm in the penultimate scene. Tanya Orellana's all-purpose scenic design evokes the hills of South Carolina, the World War II battleground where KD served, and the heath featured in Lear's story. Miranda Kau Giurleo (costume) dresses both actors in simple, country style, with Judy in jeans with suspenders and a newsboy cap, and Barnett in jeans, boots, and a sweater coat over a cotton print blouse.
The Heath deals with some serious, emotional themes, but everything feels lighter set to banjo music. Barnett and Judy are both very engaging performers and convey a folksy, down-to-earth vibe as they tell Gunderson's story. The mood shifts when the Shakespearean passages take over, and despite the validity of the juxtaposition of the two old men as they each approach their demise, the final overlong scene during the raging storm threatens to topple the carefully crafted balance established up to that point. Although the epilogue that follows is a welcome winding down, with a stated run time of 95 minutes, the play feels like it should have already ended.
Photo credit: Meghan Moore (Miranda Barnett, George Judy)