Theatre people, and perhaps all creative types... No, wait -- I take that back. Theatre people tend to cultivate a reputation among others as an emotionally distant, socially immature, attention seeking lot who tend to have more intimate relationships with the fiction they see on stage and screen than the flesh and blood people in their real lives. And Bryony Lavery's Last Easter does nothing to dispel that image. Well, not that it needs to be dispelled. Actually, Lavery seems to celebrate it a bit. It may seem odd to have so many jokes and gags in a play about a woman dying of cancer, until you realize it's not really about her. It's more about the unique kind of friendship, just as loyal and caring as can be, that bonds over anything but a direct personal connection.
The four principle characters all participate in the play's narration, able to share more honest feelings with an anonymous audience than their close friends on stage with them. And naturally, they all seem to believe the story is about them. June (Veanne Cox), the one the story is mostly about, is a London lighting designer whose cancer has been diagnosed as incurable and in its second stage. Her best friends, prop-maker Leah (Clea Lewis) and female impersonator Gash (Jeffrey Carlson) express their sympathy as best they know how, entertaining June with jokes about how her wig makes her look like Kim Hunter in Planet of the Apes. (It does.)
But show people that they are, the two buddies come up with a more theatrical scheme. Although neither is especially religious, they trick June, who has no use for the stuff ("The only thing religion's got going for it is the lighting."), into a road trip to Lourdes to see if the legendary healing waters can work another miracle. When considering a fourth person to invite to help share the cost, they reject people who seem to be closer friends and instead go for the one who'll supply the most entertainment, Joy (Florencia Lozano), an actress whose alcohol-fortified flair for the dramatic has been working overtime since her stagehand lover Howie took his own life.
In one of the play's most telling, and amusing, scenes, Leah, (a non-practicing Jew), Gash (a Catholic in name only) and Joy (a Buddhist, so long as it's fashionable) surround a blank-faced June, who is immersed in the waters, and start praying, each in their own rather demonstrative way. As June, Cox seems embarrassed, but willing to put up with the routine because it might make them feel better.
But when miracles don't happen, June recognizes there comes a time when you must "devote yourself to the business of dying" and with the help of her friends decides to take control of how her story will play out.
Playwright Lavery and director Doug Hughes perform an admirable balancing act in Last Easter. The play is a comedy, and a very funny one, and yet the tragedy of the story is never undercut by the jokes. This is because humor, and the way the characters use it to deflect sorrow, is essential to the drama.
The play is perfectly cast, especially when it comes to Clea Lewis and Jeffrey Carlson, who excel at playing amusing people. Throughout her stage and TV/film career, Lewis has rarely, if ever, strayed from being the adorably dead-pan, squeaky-voiced oddball. Carlson, whose stage career is still in its fledgling stage, has been most effective as cynical, admittedly self-absorbed ("You do remember I'm shallow, don't you?", says his Gash.) young men with a pronounced, if not shouted, feminine side. The two of them bounce wise-cracks, jokes and attempts at sincerity off of each other like a post-modern vaudeville act. Florencia Lozano plays Joy with an intense flamboyancy that squeezes humor out of the most everyday speech. Veanne Cox plays the grown-up of the group, although it would have been interesting to know what she was like before stricken. She often gazes at her friends with quiet, parental affection and is a charming, intelligent presence when telling her story to the audience. She's not going to feel sorry for herself and wouldn't dream of placing that burden on us.
A fifth member of the cast, Jeffrey Scott Green, has brief appearances as the ghost of Howie, although the reason for his presence seems unclear. Also unclear is the reason for a lightly-developed sexual relationship that arises between two of the characters.
Extremely clear is the presence of Clifton Taylor's lighting design, and appropriately so given the central character's profession. Hugh Landwehr's set is primarily a clutter of do-dads and what-nots in a theatrical prop room, until Taylor's lights gracefully point out whatever is needed to set the scene and enhance the emotions.
Oh, and yes... as the play takes place in the time between two Easter Sundays there are plenty of tributes to Judy Garland and Irving Berlin. Not to mention a joke about Gandhi that is bound to hit every cocktail party in New York by Thanksgiving.
photo by Carol Rosegg. Veanne Cox surrounded by (l-r) Florencia Lozano, Jeffrey Carlson and Clea Lewis
For more information visit mcctheater.com
For Michael Dale's "mad adventures of a straight boy living in a gay world" visit dry2olives.com
For another take on Last Easter, click here.