Death, loss and grief. Not exactly the stuff that brings us rushing into the theatre. But they’re exactly the stuff we all have to face, and find our way through. So artists are always going on about them.
The latest artist to put this unholy trio onstage is Jennifer Maisel in @the speedofJake, world-premiering at the Atwater Village Theater. Maisel has built a noted career in LA – including If You Lived Here… (reviewed below); Comings and Goings, performed at Union Station; Out of Orbit, at Cal Tech and on the Queen Mary; and The Last Seder, which went from Ensemble Studio Theatre to New York.
@thespeedofJake takes us into small, private spaces — a condo unit; a father’s grief, a mother’s, an aunt’s; and the small black hole where a boy used to be.
It opens with a soccer field projected across the apartment walls, while the parents watch and cheer for their son. But there are no children on this field. The image, repeated several times, suggests that the story — like the griefs it examines — may not be about the child, but about the adults’ imaginings of him. (Perhaps, it also whispers, we never see our children at all, except through our images of them, our hopes and fears.)
The next moment is equally bold and effective: A sheet that has draped the condo’s furniture (because, we suppose, the inhabitants have left) is lifted. We see the furniture, a chaos of papers — and the father, frozen, kneeling before a pile of childrens’ books.
The rest of the play works out this moment’s implications. While his almost-ex wife and his sister empathize and cajole, the father remains stunned, stuck, unable to move for fear of losing even a fast-food wrapper. As we watch, each of these three struggles to survive unspeakable loss.
Eventually, the father does try to cope: Using his software-design skills, he seeks to contact his absent son through the internet ether. But like his wife’s retreat into scientific materialism, or his sister’s immersion in family, his strategy only works for a while. Ultimately, each of them bows before the dark god, helpless.
The death of a child is perhaps the worst loss we can imagine, and Maisel is hardly the first writer to examine it. (David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole and the film What Dreams May Come spring to mind.) But she gives us an immediately engaging, tightly woven story, compelling us to connect with three people and the raw wounds death has torn in their lives.
And the company gives her story a strong, moving presentation. As Clark, the shock-frozen father, Ryun Yu make us share his agony, even while he tries to stifle it — thus also forcing us share the women’s angry frustration. As Emily the mother, Elizabeth Pan embodies the complex pain of being in two lives (and two marriages) at once, and carrying two children inside herself. Celeste Den as Sam delicately reveals the caring and vulnerability beneath a straight-talking sister’s exterior, and Renee Threatte as a drop-in neighbor quietly sheds layers to disclose her inner self.
The play unfolds smoothly and grows steadily deeper, thanks to the gentle skill of director Jon Lawrence Rivera. When Sam, watching a projected (and imagined) soccer game, starts arguing with Clark and Emily, she is faced away from us, looking at the wall — yet we miss no part of her sudden cataclysm. It’s a remarkable moment that only an actor’s art, supported by a director’s trust, can accomplish.
Indeed, @thespeedofJake exemplifies theatre as a collaborative art. Rivera and the Playwrights Arena have worked for a few years now with Maisel, then with Artists at Play, to bring the story from draft to finished script. Now, with Atwater Village Theater, they bring it to the stage for its premiere.
Jake also testifies to the power of diversity, as artists from many parts of the human family have shared in the process since its inception. Together, they’ve created something so true it’s painful — but necessary and, ultimately, healing.
@thespeedofJake, by Jennifer Maisel, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena in association with Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 3:00, Mondays at 7:00, thru Dec. 7.
Tickets: <www.jake.brownpapertickets.com> or (800) 838-3006.