BWW Review: Actors Bridge Ensemble's Whimsical, Magical FAILURE: A LOVE STORY
To be certain, there is one universal truth in life: As we grow older, there comes a time when we will realize that the people we love best, those individuals who make our lives truly worth living, the personalities that color our lives so vividly, will no longer be with us. And while their physical presence in our lives will be no more, we find ourselves comforted by the memories that remain in our heart of hearts.
Who knew that a whimsical, magical play - Philip Dawkins' evocatively written Failure: A Love Story, now onstage at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater in a thoroughly engaging production from Actors Bridge Ensemble in its 20th Anniversary Season - would speak so eloquently to that sense of pervasive loss brought on by the inevitable passage of time? Certainly, not I. Truthfully, I found myself in a puddle of emotions, fighting back tears and genuinely moved by what transpires in the almost two hours of Failure: A Love Story.
"If you knew when your life was going to end, would that make the journey any easier?" is but one of the themes examined in Dawkins' play (another is the notion that we are, each of us, slaves to the passage of time and the vagaries of life, buffeted from one moment to another by the undefined intricacies of a life both examined and unconsidered), one that is certain to elicit a response from every audience member, prompting much post-curtain speculation and discussion. To say that Failure: A Love Story packs an emotional wallop is a given, particularly if you avail yourself of introspection and self-awareness.
Directed with obvious care and empathy by the brilliant Jessika Malone, who surrounds herself with a top-flight production crew who ensure an astonishing physical production and an ensemble of actors who bring Dawkins' sweetly conceived characters and amazingly prescient story to life onstage, Failure: A Love Story is presented in a series of scenes that like so many stereopticon images perfectly capture an American family experiencing life to its fullest during what came to be known as The American Century.
"None could imagine a happier family" than Dawkins' fictional Fails, a down-to-earth yet fanciful Chicago clan borne of the dreams of immigrants: Father Henry (Jonah Jackson) is a hardworking clockmaker, his beautiful bride (Sejal Mehta) is a no-nonsense matriarch. Their trio of doomed daughters - we are told in the play's opening sequence that each young woman will die with a year of her sisters, one from a blunt object, the second from "disappearance" and the third from consumption - include the beautiful baby of the family Nellie (Amanda Grace Creech), the ambitious and aspiring athlete Jenny June (Cassie Hamilton), and the serious and pragmatic oldest child Gertie (Brooke Gronemeyer). Upon the occasion of their mother's miscarriage, the girls discover a foundling in the marshes along the Chicago River; named John N. (Diego Gomez), instantly he becomes part of the family, clutched to its very bosom, as it were. And into this beautifully conceived nuclear family unit comes Mortimer Mortimer (Tom Mason), a 1920s four-flusher cum masher whose boastful demeanor masks an open heart and who ultimately falls in love with each of the Fail girls, just as certainly as they fall, devastatingly and completely, for him.
Set in the early 20th century, the play focuses on the family's cunningly crafted members, each a unique individual cobbled together as a single entity by their shared dreams and experiences and a shared and abiding love that is palpable throughout the play. As we experience the multiple tragedies of loss that befall the Fails, we are drawn deeper into their shared stories and to Dawkins' credit, he links the family saga to the world outside their home in unexpected ways, calling upon the specters of "real" people to further ground the tale in a particular time and place in American history.
There are multiple references to Jenny June's crush on Johnny Weismuller (the Hungarian-born American swimming champion and Olympian who went on to star as Tarzan in a series of films in the 1930s and '40s), Grantland Rice (the Murfreesboro-born sports journalist was one of radio's earliest stars and he remains an icon among contemporary sportswriters) interviews her before a big event and Gertrude Ederle (the British woman swimmer who set multiple records in her own impressive career) figures prominently as Jenny June attempts to set her own competitive agenda.
While the time period of Failure: A Love Story is apparent throughout the play, the anachronistic touches (gadgets and tools from around the home become all manner of stage props and the clocks that fill the family's business and an impressively talented Kara McLeland becomes an anthropomorphized gramophone, providing musical accompaniment that includes both standards - "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" is a lovely ode to love, both familial and romantic - and original music that is era-appropriate and contemporary at the very same time) employed to convey the sense of time and place do nothing to discount that. Rather, they underscore the sense of universality that permeate's the play's atmospheric scenes, giving the story perspective and lending gravitas to it even while illuminating the fantastical story crafted by the playwright.
Malone's direction is elegant and unfettered: Her attention to detail ensures a fluidity that keeps the story moving ever forward even as its meanders back to previous events in a way that is easy to follow despite the oftentimes non-linear storytelling employed in Dawkins' exquisitely written script. Visually, with her team of creative designers, Malone crafts a physical presence for the play's setting that is viscerally compelling. Mitch Massaro's starkly simple, yet deceptively complex, scenic design provides the ideal backdrop for all the action that transpires - everything from a brand-new and shiny Stutz Bearcat falling into a roiling river littered with the detritus of Chicago's stockyards (Upton Sinclair has nothing on Dawkins' descriptive powers) to a kaleidoscopic vision of the inner workings of a bustling business - and Kelly Landry's evocative lighting design further establishes the various times and places of any occasion, whether joyful or mournful.
Perhaps most noteworthy about the production's aesthetic concept, however, are the various puppetry characters created by Mallory Kimbrell and Cassie Hamilton, including a sentient snake that drinks coffee and reads the Chicago Tribune, a dying family dog whose soulful eyes will touch your heart immeasurably and two brightly colored birds named May and December, whose separation leads to anxiety and recriminations. They provide some of the play's most affecting moments and their characters are as vital to the tale as any of the actual people in the cast (I refuse to look at photographs at snakes, so off-putting do I find them, and here in this play I found myself drawn to Moses' (the snake is so-named because foundling baby John N. was clutching him when he was found floating in the river) charming and common-sensical behavior.
And, oh, what a superb ensemble of actors has been assembled by Malone to bring these beautifully flawed characters to life! Amanda Grace Creech is perfect as the very personification of the Roaring '20s; her Nellie is beautiful, to be sure, but there's an underlying sweetness to her portrayal that makes Nellie more accessible and believable. As the resolute and determined Jenny June, Cassie Hamilton becomes the ambitious young woman rather than simply playing her. Brooke Gronemeyer, as the sensible and focused Gertie, delivers what may be the most revelatory performance, showing off her wide range of capabilities, without even a hint of false staginess that would render her character just another theatrical conceit in the hands of a lesser actor.
Diego Gomez, as the foundling and often misunderstood John N., very ably portrays the young man's outsider status in the family while gracefully displaying the tenderness of his heart in an altogether subtle performance. Tom Mason, as the man to whom each of the sisters is drawn, seems at first an interloper in the gentle tale, is faced with perhaps the toughest assignment but he succeeds admirably in evolving into a genuine member of the clan with a nuanced performance that could have become mannerly and stilted under other conditions.
Jonah Jackson and Sejal Mehta are superb as the intriguing brood's parents and, as members of the ensemble, seamlessly morph into other roles. The ensemble's remaining members, who include Christen Heilman, Madeleinie Hicks, Margaret Horne, Alexandra Nuff, Nyazia Martin, Hillary Martin and Kimbrell, are equally adept - and integral - in the creation of the world in which the characters live.
Failure: A Love Story is yet another feather in the cap of Actors Bridge which, for 20-plus years now, has given Nashville audiences thoughtful and provocative theater, challenging them to look beyond the confines of their own life to see a more worldly universe within their reach.
- Failure: A Love Story. By Philip Dawkins. Directed by Jessika Malone. Presented by Actors Bridge Ensemble, at Darkhorse Theater, 4610 Charlotte Avenue, Nashville. Through November 5. For details, go to www.actorsbridge.org. Running time (1 hour, 45 minutes with no intermission; pre-curtain entertainment starts at 7 p.m. in the Actors Bridge studio at Darkhorse Chapel).
photos by Eric Ventress