Questions of life and death and what awaits beyond lie at the heart of Bekah Brunstetter’s heartstrings-tugging Going to a Place where you Already Are, a South Coast Repertory World Premiere you will be talking and thinking about long after its final scene.
Roberta (Linda Gehringer) and Joe (Hal Landon, Jr.) are your typical, perfectly mismatched (i.e. perfectly matched) retirement-age couple when a medical diagnosis tests her shaky faith and his confirmed atheism.
Meanwhile, Joe’s work-obsessed granddaughter Ellie (Rebecca Mozo) finds herself drawn against her will towards Jonas (Christopher Thornton), a one-night-stand who’d like to get to know Ellie a lot better than she’d like to get to know him.
And then there’s The Angel (Stephen Ellis), who pops up in a near-death experience and sticks around for more.
Like Brunstetter’s Be A Good Little Widow, Going to a Place where you Already Are (the capitalization choices are hers) deals specifically with death and loss, i.e. hardly the most obviously crowd-pleasing, box-office-propelling of themes, but manages to do so with enough humor and humanity to draw in all but the most resistant of hearts.
From the earth-motherly Roberta to the prickly Joe to the hard-edged Ellie to the salt-of-the-earth Jonas, Brunstetter has peopled her latest with characters you care about from the get-go (or learn to love). And The Angel is pretty swell himself.
As for matters philosophical, one of Going to a Place where you Already Are’s strongest points is its ability to (for the most part) be read in multiple ways. Non-believers can persist in their certainty that whatever visions get seen are the result of an oxygen-deprived brain or subsequent wishful dreaming. Believers can take the play’s visits to the afterlife (and encounters with The Angel) as confirmation of their faith. And those on the fence can stay right where they are and mediate. (Still, several of The Angel’s appearances, most particularly one set in a supermarket aisle, do fairly or unfairly tip the scales towards the middle point of view.)
Marc Masterson directs Going to a Place where you Already Are with a deft hand in scenes both realistic and magical, leavening the play’s more somber moments with just enough lightness to make the overall confection not fall flat, and he has elicited superb performances from his cast of five.
Get ready to have your heart both won and broken by South Coast Repertory treasures Gehringer and Landon, their decades-long association adding extra layers of authenticity to their oceans-deep work as Roberta and Joe.
Mozo once again proves herself one of our finest young actresses (and a SCR treasure herself) as a woman who’s still got a thing or two to learn about love, and since she is paired with the ever-so-winning Thornton as the object of her reluctant affection, you’ve got not one but two couples to root for.
As for the uniquely charismatic Ellis, I defy anyone to resist The Angel in any of his incarnations, most especially in a pair of scenes opposite Gehringer that will have you wishing you’d brought along more Kleenex.
Scenic designer Michael B. Raiford’s set is a just-right mix of realism and illusion, matched to perfection by Tom Ontiveros’s appropriately varied lighting (and a whole lot of stage fog) and sound designer Vincent Olivieri’s captivating original music, with Christina Wright’s terrific costumes completing a Grade A production design.
Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, who along with Masterson deserves special kudos for promoting diversity when the supposedly easier route could have been taken.
Jennifer Ellen Butler is stage manager. Joshua Marchesi is production manager. Kimberly Coburn is dramaturg.
Going to a Place where you Already Are confirms what this reviewer has already discovered three times before. Bekah Brunstetter is one of our finest young playwrights—and South Coast Repertory is lucky to have her.
Brunstetter’s latest may not have you sharing Roberta’s unwavering belief, but it will make you want to.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
March 15, 2016
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR