BWW Guest Review: THE LAST FIVE YEARS at WEST VIRGINIA PUBLIC THEATRE
Guest Review by By Mollie Goff
It all starts with a waltz that goes terribly wrong. A man and woman enter, underscored by soft piano, and turn to face each other. They join together under the pool of a spotlight on an otherwise blank stage, and they dance together harmoniously-for a while. Suddenly, he misses a cue, she shoots a look, and their movements grow increasingly terse until he drops her arms and marches away, leaving her alone to sing the opening number.
And thus, we see the beginning, middle, and end of Cathy (played by Nora Perone) and Jamie's (played by Dan Stevens) relationship before the first note has even been sung.
Not that we mind the spoilers. Jason Robert Brown purposefully constructed The Last Five Years with Cathy experiencing their marriage's rise and fall in reverse order beginning with their separation, while her ex-husband, Jamie, progresses through their courtship chronologically. The two practically exist in separate worlds for the majority of the play, usually singing alternating solos, backed in this version by the masterful RJ Nestor on the piano. While Perone and Stevens frequently share the stage their characters almost never acknowledge each other, with one always melding into the shadows just as the other enters.
And therein lies the heartbreak for the viewer-the two characters are never quite in the same place at the same time, never fully experiencing joy and sorrow in cohesion with their partner. The sole song where they fully share the stage, as Jamie proposes, is an electric few minutes of connection, but once it passes the two are on their separate paths again, living moments that have already passed or are yet to come.
Perone and Stevens use this division to their advantage, and we come away bearing an equal appreciation both for Cathy's self-deprecating irony and for Jamie's nearly insufferable but mostly charming self-assurance. Fun key moments included Stevens stealing an audience member's drink and plunking down next to them in an empty seat as his wife auditions for a musical and Perone traipsing merrily across the stage as she sings about the horrors of performing summer stock theatre in Ohio.
Enough cannot be said about the level of finesse that both actors exhibit in their performances. Perone's soprano both soars through the gut-wrenching moments of tears, loss, and frustration and finds its grounding in the more comical moments. She perfectly embodies the loveable every-artist with her sardonic sense of humor, although with every quip she manages to underscore the pain of falling in love with an industry that doesn't love you back. Perone keeps Cathy from becoming embittered and instead presents her as softened by her personal and artistic insecurities, made more tender by playing bystander to her husband's massive professional success. Stevens, meanwhile, crafts said husband into a class clown who is slightly too nerdy to be truly suave. He enters the show completely believable as the quirky know-it-all who must have been the bane of his Columbia professors' collective existence, but Stevens allows the bravado to fall away in the more heartfelt moments to reveal a tender underbelly to the character. As the story progresses Jamie's professional success explodes while his personal life falters, and we see Stevens swell and then retract with heart-rending clarity.
Every other element-set, lights, costumes-is presented with such artful simplicity that we can only focus on the characters and their relationship. The seating, dinner-theatre style with small round tables and folding chairs, forges a sense of camaraderie and intimacy that turns the audience into the friends Jamie and Cathy nudge during a punchline and the shoulders they cry on in the moments of heartbreak. Resultantly, we are drawn into their dissonant world; we know how it will end before it even fully starts, but we root for them anyway through the final moment of the show.
This coproduction between Streetlights, People and West Virginia Public Theatre is a powerful showcase of talent with so much wit and heart that you can't help but take the story personally. If it comes your way, under no circumstances should this be missed.