note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
Like the rest of us, playwright Steve Yockey has no idea what happens to us after we die, or where we go in the afterlife, so he decided to write about it, he said.
The young playwright was delighted with New Repertory Theatre’s production of this rolling world premiere of “Afterlife: A Ghost Story,” that’s appearing now through Feb. 6 in the Charles Mosesian Theatre. He should be. The acting is superb, Cristina Todesco’s set artistically captivating, and Karen Parsons and David Remedios’ sound and visual special effects are astounding. Their frightening, realistic recreation of a wind-and-wave-lashing storm at the seaside that sweeps everything in its tide --- much like Plum Island in Newburyport, where houses and seawalls crumble like dust into the raging sea --- is startling.
In the first act, Yockey is pragmatic,as he introduces a loving young couple, Danielle and Connor, who have returned to their home to batten down the hatches before a storm strikes. They’re possibly closing the place altogether, we’re not sure.
The sea is churning, lashing against the shore. Dead fish lie everywhere, while predatory blackbirds stand like sentinels, they say. Thunderbolts ignite the sky, Connor is affable, chipper; Danielle, nervous, high strung, fragile. He’s optimistic, she’s negative. While she’s coming apart, he attempts to hold her together. Marianna Bassham as Danielle and Thomas Piper as Connor are terrific together, their timing precise and interaction intense.
When we learn what’s troubling Danielle - that their 3-year-old only son was washed out to sea before their eyes - we feel the depths of her pain, the unimaginable, darkest grief of losing a child while being helpless to prevent it. Although Connor claims he has made his peace with his loss, his grief and loss are equally profound, but his male instinct to protect Danielle enables him to mask it.
The second act takes an ominous turn. The set is divided, without walls or seams, into a triptych of stark places, much like an Alice’s Wonderland, rife with symbolism, laden with emptiness, yet tinged with irony. They’re in a spiritual limbo, where unseen evil-looking harbingers of death - lurking, large blackbirds that haunted Danielle at the seashore - hover around a teen-ager (Karl Baker Olson) on an isolated island. A long-necked, large “messenger” of sorts (Dale Place), flaps his wings while communicating with Connor, who has washed ashore somewhere, shirtless, blindfolded, and alone, unable to see his “guide”. As the teen-ager writes endless letters to his parents, telling them he hopes to come home soon, a postman (also Dale Place) tarries awhile, collects the letter, then rips it up, tossing it on a pile.
Meanwhile, Danielle is in a stranger place, like Alice’s having tea with the dormouse and the mad hatter. A well-dressed older woman ( Adrianne Krstansky), is serving tea, her bone china set decorating large water pipes and a hostess tea cart, while a younger woman (Georgia Lyman), sits and sews, her fingers and hands sore from her endless handiwork.
These characters in Act II are symbolic representations of a netherworld, between heaven and Earth, where those who die suddenly or are unaware they are dead wait..... and wait.....hoping for ascension and/or reuniting with loved ones.
Although Yockey threads together the three scenes, he doesn’t paint an ending that’s happily ever after. Nor does he attempt to provide answers. He wants “Afterlife” to create an impetus to probing discussions about a subject for which there is no answer, leaving us to wonder, wander, hypothesize, discuss, provoke and explore with these victims and unhappy souls swept away by grief.
BOX INFO: National New Play Network Rolling World Premier of Steve Yockey’s two-act play, starring Marianna Bassham and Thomas Piper; directed by Artistic Director Kate Warner; appearing with the New Repertory Theatre at the Charles Mosesian Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Performances are Thursdays and Wednesday, Jan. 26, at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 30, Feb. 6, at 2 p.m. with post-show talkbacks; Saturday, Jan. 29, Feb. 5, at 3,8 p.m. Admission, $28-$58; senior discount, $7 off; student rush, $14. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.