I’m still high from last night. The beer buzz wore off hours ago, but the euphoric afterglow of all the slam-bam-here’s my truth, from the soul banging continues. First of all, as I said in my late-night post last night, I spent the evening with three of my favorite people. Second of all, we spent 90 minutes of it at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia seeing a production of Jason Robert Brown’s “The Last Five Years” which was heart-shatteringly good.
Walking into the space we were greeted by an imaginative set depicting a world literally surrounded by a tornado whirl of creativity intruded upon by time. Now, I am a sucker for books, films, and theatre pieces that explore and explode our limited concept of linear time and reality. So “The Last 5 Years” structure of painting a relationship from opposite ends – with wife, Cathy, starting from its explosive, sorrowful ending and moving backward in time, and husband, Jamie, starting at its exciting, spontaneous beginning and moving ineluctably toward its heartbreaking end – has always fascinated me. What makes it even more thought-provoking, moving, and inspiring is the brilliantly evocative score by Jason Robert Brown.
The musical is a two-hander, so perfect casting is essential. From the second Erin Weaver walked onto the stage and opened her soul to sing the first note of “Still Hurting” I was enraptured. The difficult challenge of opening a show with a heart-rending ballad, walking onto a stage and capturing the audience’s attention and sympathy with a song that would normally occur late in the evening, playing the end of an emotional arc without benefit of introduction, back-story, or history is a ridiculous feat to ask of an actress; Erin Weaver not only achieved it, she did so without any of the overtly-theatrical-hammy- “feel-sorry-for-me” bullshit trickery to which one is all too often subjected by those afforded the privilege of singing Jason Robert Brown’s mini-musical-monologues. Erin Weaver came out on the stage and opened a vein of truth-telling, setting a level of honesty and clear, emotional nakedness she somehow maintained throughout the evening. She was, by turns (and sometimes, all at once) hilarious, charming, sexy, frightened, neurotic, needy, angry, frustrated, flighty, friendly, and even difficult to deal with yet never off-putting. She got me from the start and she kept me for the entire 90 minutes. It helped, of course, that the lyrics she had to sing were so gorgeously set to such interesting and seductive melodies. I think that “Still Hurting” contains one of the most trenchant and effective lyrics in musical theatre history;
” Jamie is over and where can I turn?
Covered with scars I did nothing to earn;
Maybe there’s somewhere a lesson to learn.
But that doesn’t change the fact;
That wouldn’t speed the time;
Once the foundation’s cracked
And I’m still hurting.”
It was when Ms. Weaver, roughly five minutes into the evening bled “Covered with scars I did nothing to earn…” that I first began weeping.
Her co-star, James Gardiner, was no slouch either. His character, Jamie, is (for me) far less sympathetic however, and since the show begins with the heartbreak Cathy has suffered at his abandonment, and since he enjoys a level of success she does not – both in his career and his finding inner peace – it is difficult not to resent the character, and, naturally, the actor playing him. Gardiner is naturally disarming, a captivating presence, irresistibly fun and with a voice that seduces and a balls-to-the-wall energy and commitment at which one cannot help but marvel, and yet, still, one can’t help feeling that the character is something of an egotistical, selfish, self-centered monster. But, he’s playing a writer and . . . well . . . there it is. I’m not sure any actor can make the character of Jamie winning (or that any director would want that to be the case) but Gardiner almost got me to feel sorry for Jamie and angry at Cathy during his delivery of “If I Didn’t Believe In You” but then he was saddled with his closing aria, “Nobody Needs to Know” which is a gorgeous song but takes place as he is cheating on and deciding to leave Cathy and so . . . well, there it is. And I loved him, I just . . . well, I can’t commit to a man who walks out on a musical theatre diva like Cathy – AND I KNOW IT’S A STORY.
Hahaha…my lunatic, near stalker-like loyalty to Cathy (and now, Erin Weaver) aside, these two performances are both worthy of Helen Hayes nominations as is the direction by Aaron Posner. The visual vocabulary of mirrored movements by the characters at opposite ends of their emotional journeys was detailed and brilliant. I won’t bore you with examples, because unless you have directed shows the technical genius behind it would likely bore you, but the juxtaposition of Cathy’s handling of her now tragic reminder of a wedding ring in the first scene and Jamie’s abandonment of his own ring in the final scene were the sorts of moments that separate real directors from those who simply moderate traffic on-stage. One further example; only Cathy ever stepped off the “stage-proper” onto the floor level which served to physically embody the emotional truth that this world in which she lived was one made, mostly, by Jamie, in which she was a visitor, in which, finally, she was an outsider, and the last image we have is of Jamie inside the world and Cathy looking into it, through a window. GLORIOUS!
Posner’s direction was more than supported by the flawless conducting and piano playing of William Yanesh as well as lighting as designed by Andrew F. Griffin that was so spot-on (so to speak), so evocative, so integral to the emotional heft and arc of the show, it was like a third character in the show.
If you have an interest in magical theatre, in truth-telling, in beautiful voices, in the sort of communication and connection and honesty you share with your dearest friends and confidantes, then you MUST go to “The Last Five Years” before it closes – which is next week.