Sort of Weighing a Life: Semele’s “Eric Argyle”

What’s the measure of a life?  How — if at all — do we matter?

A century ago, two minor classics of American writing — Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) — addressed this question.  So did a stage classic, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, 20 years later.

Masters’ poems, Anderson’s short stories and Wilder’s play are all set in small towns.  All three find isolation to be the great enemy.  Although the characters are surrounded by people most of them have known all their lives, nearly every one of them feels alone, cut off, unmet.

Melina Bielefelt, Craig Fleming, Bruce A. Lemon Jr., Don Boughton.

Melina Bielefelt, Craig Fleming, Bruce A. Lemon Jr., Don Boughton.

Fast forward to 2012.  Playwright Ross Dungan takes a look and finds that isolation still dogs most people, making them feel their lives may be pointless.  In small towns, anyway, since that’s where he sets The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle.

Which is a curious choice.

A century ago, America was — or could imagine itself to be — a small-town culture.  The small town was where most folks lived, or at least came from, even in the few big cities like Chicago or New York.   Artists naturally looked to small towns to take the pulse of our lives.  (So did scientists, as in the classic sociological study Middletown, published in 1929).

But by the late 20th century — the time of Eric Argyle — 85% of Americans were living in huge cities.  We’re a global urban culture, tied together by electronics and popular media, and there is no more corner store.

Yet that’s where Eric works for his whole life, starting as a teenager.   (Like George Abbott in the 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life).  The corner store is where Eric  falls for the girl of his dreams (like George) , and where he dies — well, actually on the street out front, stepping into traffic.  (George dies by jumping from a nearby bridge.)

Dungan frames his story with an afterlife review, as did Masters and Wilder (and Capra & Stern in Wonderful Life.)  And here, our author does a new thing.  The review is not to send Eric to heaven or hell, nor even to weigh his earthly life.  It’s for quite another purpose.  (You’ll have to see it to find out.)

The other original feature of Eric Argyle comes from the director.  Matthew McCray says he was  “intrigued by the way the objects we accumulate can chronicle … our lives.”  Much rehearsal time thus went to letting actors find relationships with the various objects,  so they might give the items “a larger role in the storytelling.”

Set designer Sarah Krainin and production manager Alexander Wells leaped in with gusto.  The small stage is crammed with items and furnishings, making actors step over them at times.

Yet, as the play unfolds, the objects don’t seem any different than those in any other play.  What’s wanted, I suspect,  is a way for the audience to feel related to them, to become familiar with their look and heft (perhaps even holding or touching them), to know their stories, sense their meaning.

Eric Argyle is about human relationships, after all, and the ensemble does a fine job of weaving a complex web — with some considerable challenges.  Every actor but one (the ever interesting and believable Craig Fleming, as older Eric) must not only carry a character or two, or three, but must also take on large chunks of the near-constant narration.

Son of Semele newcomers Inga Wilson (Eric’s love, Gillian) and Rick Steadman (as young Eric) acquit themselves particularly well.  Also strong are Bruce A. Lemon Jr. (the lead “interrogator”), Sarah Rosenberg (a cellist and a child) and Dan Via (who differentiates subtly but strikingly between Eric’s best friend, Craig, and his mentor, Mr. Downey).  Don Boughton is creepily forceful as Eric’s authoritarian uncle (despite some opening-night line fluffs), and Melina Bielefelt moves easily between a sympathetic “good cop” and a light comic role.

Tricky cues in the sound (Noelle Riad Sammour) and light (Jeremy Pivnick) designs are played sharply.  Lights effectively distinguish life on Earth from the afterworld.  And the soundtrack, with midcentury pop that endured (think Sinatra), keeps us somewhere under the late 20th century’s cultural umbrella.

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle is an engaging, rewarding evening of theatre.  The story is told with complexity and style.  Yet it feels a bit light, not as challenging or deep as the questions it raises.  These are small lives, facing trials that seem manageable, shaped by decisions that seem timid.  Like a small town in our mega-urban world, or an argyle sock, it seems a bit lost, out of its time and place.

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle, by Ross Dugan, directed by Matthew McCray.
Presented by the Son of Semele Ensemble, at Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd.

Mondays (Sept. 8 and 22) at 7:00 pm.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 3:00 pm,
through Sept. 28.

Tickets: <>