BWW Reviews: Stages Repertory Theatre's FAILURE: A LOVE STORY is Full of Heart and Energy

By: Feb. 04, 2014
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L to R: Courtney D. Jones, Nina L. Garcia & Brittany
Halen. Photo by Pin Lim.

As a new year begins, we often feel that we have all the time in the world. Presenting the Regional Premiere of Philip Dawkins' FAILURE: A LOVE STORY, Stages Repertory Theatre is kindly reminding audiences that time is something precious and that it is also often wasted. This touching play, filled with a lot of heart and energy, is sure to leave audiences more cognizant of the constant tick-tock of life's clock and how we choose to spend our time.

Philip Dawkins' FAILURE: A LOVE STORY, a charmingly wordy one-act, had its world premiere produced by Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago in late 2012. The script and Stages' production is highly stylized and very self-aware, utilizing the cast much like a Greek chorus to narrate large portions of the show. Within moments of the lights coming up, Philip Dawkins has the cast tell the audience that the year is 1928, and that by the end of the year the three Fail sisters will be dead, one by blunt object, one by disappearance, and one by consumption (in that order). This knowledge serves to heighten the experience and leaves the audience attending to every word uttered, making moments of dramatic irony and darkly comic foreshadowing all the more noticeable.

The script is not perfect though. In many ways, it feels that the plot doesn't truly kick off until we are told of the stillborn fourth Fail sister and the discovery of the infant John N. on the banks of the Chicago River. The exposition in the show becomes tedious, giving too many clever details that bog the opening of the play down. After all, this play is truly about Mortimer Mortimer and how he came to genuinely love and ultimately lose the three Fail sisters in the year 1928. This love story in triplicate is sumptuous, thematically rich, and told with elegant prose. It is affecting and stirring, but the audience is forced to wade through the murky waters of messy back story before it ever truly begins, and this feat sadly caused a couple of patrons to jump ship and swim back to the shores of reality during the performance I attended.

Direction by Leslie Swackhamer is vibrant and full of color, bringing a vaudevillian air to the piece. Her cast deliciously over-exaggerates and over-emphasizes their actions during the innumerable moments of narration. They directly address the audience, looking at us from the stage and daring us not to get swept away by the yarn they spin. Then, in the moments where they get to live and breath as the characters in this touching parable, they emote with precision to guarantee that their joys, heartaches, and sorrows tangibly affect the audience. Philip Dawkins doesn't give the cast much time for these characters to become real, but with Leslie Swackhamer at the reigns, this cast contrasts the chorus elements with some intense acting chops and manages to cause the eyes of the audience to moisten and become misty on several occasions.

The full cast of FAILURE: A LOVE STORY. Photo by
Bruce Bennett.

Working together as an ensemble, this cast of six delights us with their recitation of the plot. They charm us with their enthusiasm and charisma, and create excitingly animated characters that we can't help but pay attention to. Likewise, when not playing their named characters, the group fills in as inanimate objects, animals, clocks in the shop, and more to successfully fill the stage with effervescent life and movement.

Michelle Elaine's Mother and Luis Galindo's Father are an industrious and hardworking couple who immigrates to the United States and proudly opens Fail Clock Works (established 1900, open) on the corner of Lumber and Love. Nina L. Garcia's Nelly Fail, the youngest of the trio of sisters, is a jazz loving beauty. Brittany Halen's Jenny June Fail, the middle sister, is a precocious and daring swimmer who ambitiously decides to be the first woman (and human) to swim across Lake Michigan. Courtney D. Jones' Gertrude Fail, the oldest of the Fail sisters, is a practical-minded, hardworking, and altogether serious girl. The anti-social John N., the adopted Fail child, is played by Lex Laas to be eccentrically brainy. David Matranga colors Mortimer Mortimer as a smooth talking romantic. Each member of the cast brings warmth to the stage, crafting characters who are full of life, dreams, and desires. And although we, as the audience, know we'll see each one die, they still manage to make the deaths have weight, bringing forth a sense of sadness and haunting the audiences with the fragility of all life.

The technical elements all work to keep the audience focused on the words being delivered. Ryan McGettigan's Scenic Design is elaborately sparse. He fills the background with cut outs of cogs and gears, and dresses the support columns with laced struts and ties, creating the illusion of pure tension eyebars that are telling reminders of 1920s Chicago's industrialism. He also masterfully incorporates a sandbar into his design, which takes on several powerful symbolic meanings throughout the production.

Moreover, Kristina Hanssen's vividly colored Costume Designs perfectly immolate the fashions of the period. Devlin Browning's Lighting Design is superbly atmospheric, heightening mood and tone with well-chosen color washes. Leslie Swackhamer's Sound Design relies on her cast to create a majority of the sound effects heard in the production. Jodi Bobrovsky's intelligent Properties Design is mostly made up of found items that are repurposed to fit the plot and aid the audience's imaginations.

FAILURE: A LOVE STORY is a unique piece in that it knowingly defies some theatrical conventions while strictly adhering to others. It playfully presents its plot in a mash-up between a radio play style and a romantic silent film melodrama. Ultimately, this cast and crew produces a beautiful parable about how we must make the most of the time we've got because one never knows when that time may end.

Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

The Regional Premiere of FAILURE: A LOVE STORY, produced by Stages Repertory Theatre, runs in Stages' Yeager Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Suite 101, Houston, 77019, now through February 16, 2014. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. For tickets and more information, please visit or call (713) 527-0123.

Photos courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre.

Michelle Elaine & Luis Galindo. Photo by Pin Lim.

L to R: Lex Laas, Brittany Halen & Nina L. Garcia. Photo by Pin Lim.

L to R: Courtney D. Jones, Nina L. Garcia & Brittany Halen. Photo by Pin Lim.

L to R: Nina L. Garcia, Luis Galindo, Michelle Elaine & Brittany Halen. Photo by Pin Lim.

Brittany Halen & David Matranga. Photo by Pin Lim.

Brittany Halen & David Matranga. Photo by Pin Lim.

Brittany Halen. Photo by Pin Lim.

L to R: Lex Laas, Brittany Halen & Nina L. Garcia. Photo by Pin Lim.

David Matranga & Courtney D. Jones. Photo by Pin Lim.

David Matranga. Photo by Pin Lim.

The full cast of FAILURE: A LOVE STORY. Photo by Bruce Bennett.