(Costa Mesa, CA) April, 2014 – When it comes to film and theatre, there is nothing like the magic of a creative collaboration. Examples include Scorsese and DeNiro, Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, and, of course, William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. During South Coast Repertory’s 2012/2013 season, Artistic Director Martin Benson and up and coming playwright Samuel D. Hunter worked together to produce The Whale, a play about how a dangerously obese man self-destructs and affects the lives around him. Performed at SCR’s Argyros Stage, The Whale was a critical and box office success. The creative chemistry between Benson’s deft direction and Hunter’s magical insight into character and dialogue has resulted in them collaborating once again for Hunter’s latest work, Rest, which is being performed at the Segerstrom Main Stage. And the results for this world premiere are, as expected, extraordinary. Director Benson, Playwright Hunter, and a talented cast paint a detailed theatrical landscape full of tenderness and power.
A snow storm approaches a northern Idaho retirement home, a center which has been sold and is soon to be closed down. Only three residents remain: Etta (Lynn Milgrim), her husband Gerald (Richard Doyle), and their friend Tom (Hal Landon, Jr.). The skeleton crew staff includes an angst supervisor Jeremy, (a hilariously hyper Rob Nagle), two nurses Ginny (Libby West) and Faye (Sue Cremin) and a high-strung young cook, Ken (Wyatt Fenner), who was hired for three days before the place is completely shut down. A somber Etta shares with various staff members how her 91-year-old husband—a tenured music professor—has been slipping into increased dementia for the past twelve years, turning both of their lives into a living hell. At the same time, Faye is pregnant, serving as a surrogate mother for Ginny and her husband. But Faye is expressing feelings of regret and fear as to where her future lies after the child is born. A divorced Jeremy is also uncertain about his future after the center closes. And Ken, a born-again Christian, is doubtful he can deal with the sterile, death-like environment that seems to haunt the retirement home. All of their feelings are intensified when the brutal snow storm finally hits the area, shutting the occupants inside the building. And worst of all, Gerald is missing, which serves as a catalyst that changes all of their lives forever.
Benson’s patient direction guides the pacing as though the audience was reading a lyrical poem, and placing the action on the Segerstrom Stage (excellent scenic design by John Iacovelli) was a wise move because the smaller Argyros Stage would have been too claustrophobic for the story. The main stage at SCR opens up the action and, at key points, delicately lightens the play’s mood. Playwright Hunter’s sense for creating “misfits”—people who don’t quite fit the status quo—was very evident in The Whale and it definitely shows in Rest. Each of these emotional “misfits” shows considerable layering regarding their failed expectations and the decisions they have to make in order not to sink into total despair. Rest is a sad play, but not a despairing one. And Hunter’s strong ear for dialogue and eye for character is getting stronger with each work he creates. If there was only one flaw in this character tapestry, it’s Ken, who is extremely similar to The Whale’s Elder Thomas (also played by Fenner). Both characters are devout when it comes to their belief systems (Thomas with Mormonism; Ken with Protestant-based Christianity), both are uptight and high-strung, and both try their best to stick with their values when certain events come into the picture. Both are basically the same characters; they just have different names and are practicing different religions. Although Fenner was hilarious and heartwarming as Ken, there was a great deal amount of repetitiveness in this performance. Hunter created the role specifically for this talented actor, but it would have been more daring to see Ken much different from Elder Thomas, thereby showcasing Fenner’s acting range and Hunter’s ability to pen more diverse characters. But to those who haven’t seen The Whale, this detail is hardly noticeable and the overall play and its characters still come alive and work together well.
Milgrim’s Etta is the true star of this ensemble. Her ability to age physically and emotionally is a phenomenal tour-de-force. Milgrim reveals each facet of her character as the story progresses, showing devotion for Gerald and her pain regarding how his dementia has been disintegrating her will and her hope. Milgrim is also an excellent storyteller with her monologues where the pacing never drags. When she tells a story about her husband, her past or anything else, people listen. And her stage chemistry with her co-stars sparkles throughout the show. Rest is Etta’s story and Milgrim captures her essence with perfection.
Watching SCR Founding Artists Landon Jr. and Doyle is an experience of itself, no matter what play they act in, whether separately or together. And Rest is no exception. Landon Jr.’s Tom is mostly quiet on the stage during the first act. But his presence is felt and when he does open up more in the second act, he is on fire with his wise insight and especially his dry sense of humor. A former night watchman, Tom, too, saw the slow deterioration of his spouse before her passing and Landon Jr.’s compassionate sympathy anchors Etta’s emotional stability. Doyle’s Gerald is a heartbreaking picture of mental and physical loss, and his ability to appear ninety-one—an unhealthy ninety-one—is brilliant where it is unfortunate that he didn’t have more stage time. West’s desperately bossy Ginny and Cremin’s haunted Faye work beautifully with each other where their confrontations are like a well-timed tennis match and their reconciliations seem like slow jazz. They, as well as Nagle and Henner, balance nicely with the performances of their veteran counterparts, making Rest an experience to behold.
Peter A. Balaskas is a journalist, fiction writer, editor, and voice over artist.
Rest opened March 28-April 27, 2014
South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage
655 Town Center Drive,
Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197
Photos by Debora Robinson