October. Autumn. Daylight hours fade. But in Pasadena, the footlights go up on two new plays – one world premiere, one West Coast premiere – both shining light through the cracks in our careful facades, the perfect faces we show others while struggling to keep our hearts intact.
By Melanie Hooks
Both are fresh, powerful and fully involving. Beautifully written, staged and performed, both will keep you talking for days afterward.
How the Light Gets In – Boston Court Pasadena, World Premiere
First up, a love story between an American travel writer who doesn’t travel, Grace (Amy Sloan), and Japanese architect Haruki (Ryan Yu), who can’t seem to design the simplest structure of his storied career – a tea house in an unspecified tea garden (though it was tempting to imagine our local gem, Storrier Stearns especially with the beautiful set design by Tesshi Nakagawa that evokes traditional kare-sansui garden feature).
Workshopped last summer here at Boston Court Pasadena and recently at Chautauqua Theatre Company in New York, the play now gets a full-length staging, and the months of hard work show. Playwright E.M. Lewis and Director Emilie Pascale Beck achieve a smart written, loving look at a rocky topic: how to let go of fear – or at least, learn to live through it.
Grace isn’t only dealing with a life half-lived; she’s facing breast cancer, 42, single and virtually friendless. Her main human interactions come during her hours as a docent at the tea garden, where she attracts the attention of a homeless teenager, Kat (Chelsea Kurtz), who secretly listens to Grace’s tour from her hidden shelter under the weeping willow.
Kat’s naivety (she has no idea the tree has such a sad name) comes across believably, thanks to Kurtz’s guardedness. Costume Designer Ann Closs-Farley commented that Kat’s look was the most difficult to achieve, but it comes across at once as a girl wrapped in layers of defensiveness. Even when she receives a new piece of clothing, she doesn’t replace anything previous, just adds it to the menagerie of grays and blues that attempt to blend into the backgrounds.
Grace’s own heart-red top only shows up prominently when she must expose her body’s ailing part – the breast above her heart. Though there is no nudity, there is plenty of vulnerability hidden under Grace’s layers as well. She resists unwrapping them despite the awkward charm of Haruki’s anti-social response to her early breakdown. She declares she needs a hug and looks up hopefully. He scoots backward, hopes the moment will pass, and finally responds, “I’m Japanese. I could bow.” Obviously these two will fall in love, right? (The audience certainly did with Yu, a natural leading man.)
Not quite so easy as that. Certainly their attraction quickly follows, and an easy trust develops – but the reality of cancer treatment crashes through all the easy things. Kat needs adults she can count on, but neither these two nor the crusty tattoo artist she befriends at the E.R., Tommy Z (Dietrich Gray, in a role he was surely born to play), want that responsibility.
Sloan as Grace taps into so many fears of modern womanhood that it feels like watching the secret life of any coffee drinker in a local Starbucks. She’s pretty but insecure, making a living but not comfortable, longing for connection but too skittish to finish a whole conversation. Her dissatisfaction with her life morphs from a general malaise to an acute existential crisis as she faces the real possibility that she’s already achieved her greatest moments – and has no idea what they are.
A few moments do feel a bit rushed – Haruki and Grace’s meet cute is followed by several seemingly truncated moments that would benefit from a little stretching – but each plotline does support the others, and the emotional pay-offs work each time: “It’s harder to be without when you have had.” Each character craves connection, regardless of how much they each push it away. And ultimately, their journeys push them toward it, rewarding bravery versus perfection.
As the play’s inspiration from Leonard Cohen states, “There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
How The Light Gets In
• Written by E.M. Lewis
• Directed by Emilie Pascale Beck
• Cast: Amy Sloan, Ryun Yu, Chelsea Kurtz, and Dieterich Gray
Boston Court Pasadena
70 N Mentor Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106
(Parking lot behind the theater)
• Through October 27:
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 2:00 pm
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, no intermission
• General admission: $20 – $39.
Purchase tickets here.
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A Kid Like Jake – IAMA @Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse, West Coast Premiere
From the homeless but incredibly productive IAMA Theatre Company comes a dazzling night of intimate family drama – “A Kid Like Jake,” written and newly updated by Daniel Pearle. First premiered at Lincoln Center in New York, the script has already become a Sundance film with Claire Danes, Jim Parsons and Octavia Spencer, but its latest iteration is updated for the black box-style Carrie Hamilton space upstairs at the Playhouse.
Frankly, the closeness of the space seems made for this story of a “woke” couple wrestling with the stress of their young son’s transition from protected preschool to competitive, cutthroat kindergarten admissions in a large city. Their somewhat anxious beginning builds to explosive rages and heartbreaking vulnerabilities as their son’s insistence on wearing dresses and playing with princesses outs their own unspoken fears and prejudices. It’s hard to imagine a better and more involving climate than the masterful set-in-our-laps by DeAnne Millais. The very smallness of a preschool, the claustrophobic hominess of an apartment completely taken over by building blocks and educational toys all work so well precisely because we can’t escape them. We must face this difficult childhood right along with parents Alex (Sarah Utterback) and Greg (Tim Peper) and teacher Judy (Sharon Lawrence).
While this story might seem like a nod to more recent transgender rights headlines, Pearle in fact originated this story before most modern language and awareness of these issues came to prominence. The updating has been partly to move the language up to date around it; when teacher Judy first floats the words “gender expansive play” around little Jake’s tendencies at school, mother Alex reels as if she’s never heard them before. It’s hard now to imagine those days, but again the insularity of a toddler’s home, the isolation of parents from the larger world during those years, grounds the play’s treatment into something incredibly intimate and personal.
This is not a mouthpiece for a political movement, but a genuine and heartfelt exploration of what burdens these two parents are willing to shoulder – or to lay on their child’s shoulders. How much torture from the outside world is Alex willing to subject Jake to on a general public school playground? Is it worth telling him to shut himself down so the world won’t see him? Is her growing obsession with getting in really a story about caving to societal pressure, or is she a parent just keeping her child safe?
Utterback and Peper’s body language sear with emotion – a super-charged subtext for a couple desperate to say the right things all the time. The pressure not just of parenthood but of their entire generation seems to lay on their shoulders. Offend no one, accept everyone, feel everything – but stick to rational discourse at all times, regardless of personal feelings. His profession of therapist and hers as a former lawyer/now stay-at-home mom feel incredibly relevant and slot both characters in the strict lanes of logic and hyper-detailed language. Both actors bring such barely-restrained screaming-under-my-skin intensity to their portrayals that audience members were not only moved opening night, they often looked away, embarrassed to be overhearing such personal revelations from a couple in turmoil. Director Jennifer Chambers must be lauded for shepherding one of the most realistic marriages into stage life in years.
The incredible gifts of Sharon Lawrence as teacher and confidante Judy bring an equally careful counterpoint to the story. How do you tell a couple that they’re off track? How do you help the child best – with direct honesty or by careful manipulation of their behavior? The often no-win position of modern educators gets a great champion in this performance and role. Pearle and Chambers themselves are parents of young children and clearly know these treacherous ropes.
Olivia Liang as Alex’s O.B. nurse shares one of the most touching moments of the night alone with Alex in the exam room. It’s not until seeing two women onstage coping with the nitty gritty panic of perfect motherhood expectation that one realizes how rare the knowledge of our imperfect bodies is to the outside world. Staging such a scene, showing husband Greg’s overwhelming discomfort in the waiting room, contrasted with Alex’s moment of being completely alone and out of control of her own body in the exam room – and finishing it with a moment of connection between Liang and Utterbeck, one woman helping one another with simple kindess and directness – this is what makes theater special, unique. It makes the unseen seen. It brings our darkness into the light.
“Please, parents, come to this show,” Peper said after the show. “We want you to know you aren’t alone.”
Can there be any better reason for art?
A Kid Like Jake
• Written by Daniel Pearle
• Directed by Jennifer Chambers
• Cast: Sarah Utterback, Tim Peper, Sharon Lawrence, and Olivia Liang
• Produced by IAMA Theatre Company
Carrie Hamilton Theatre at the Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena CA 91101
• Through November 3
Fridays at 8:00 pm; Saturdays at 8:00 pm;Sundays at 7 pm
• $35 (discount tickets at goldstar.com)
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