Analyzing the loss of a child can be difficult for anyone, particularly for a group of people who have never had children of their own. A group of students tackle that feat this weekend with Living Creatures, a new original play written by first year MFA student Ashley Rose Wellman.
Wellman said her new play was inspired by a dream and much of the play takes on a very dream-like quality. Though it starts off realistically, the plot gets more and more strange; words become poetry and the line between reality and fiction becomes blurred.
The show opens with a rhetorical monologue by Julie (Sohina Sidhu), a mother who believes that “houses built after 1980 are sh-t.” She craves ghosts and history in her own house, but she quickly learns you must be careful what you wish for. After she and her husband, Kevin (Austin Humble), lose their son, Luke (Michael Lyons), when he eats too many crabcakes (due to his allergy), the two must struggle to come to terms with both their loss and reality. Julie takes a trip to the “other world” to find her son and ends up meeting some of the very ghosts she asked for days earlier.
The imaginative nature of the play couples nicely with the technical aspects of the show, with empty wall frames filled with bare-bulb lights serving as dramatic decoration. The lighting design by Alex Underwood is beautiful and complements the moody nature of the show. It works particularly well when separating the various levels of reality throughout the show, both cluing in the audience that this isn’t real, but still leaving it up to interpretation.
Sound also plays a major role in this production. The sounds of crashing waves and underwater gurgling provide an intriguing soundtrack, as well as the eerie, echoing voices of desperate lost souls. The voices of the actors themselves also contribute, and some scenes feel like musical numbers, only without actual music. When the three family members describe a trip to the beach, accompanied by the sounds of an empty beach, the rhythm of their voices even matches the ebb and flow of the water. It creates a completely serene moment, echoing the sentiment of the dialogue. The peacefulness is only truly appreciated when it is shattered soon after.
These artistic, inventive moments are what make this play so intriguing, and can no doubt be attributed to director and USC alumnus Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx. There are many periods when the actors, writing and technical elements weave together seamlessly. Sometimes the occurrences are so small that one might not even notice them, such as when Kevin and Julie sit down in chairs on opposite sides of the stage at the exact same time, while both sighing. It may seen insignificant, but it adds to the mythical feel of the play.
Despite these wonderful elements, it is by no means a perfect play or a perfect performance. The play lacks emotion, especially in the first half. It almost feels as though Luke has been dead for weeks or months, rather than mere hours, based on how his parents seem to be handling it. Both Sidhu and Humble have some wonderful moments throughout the play, particularly during the final scene. But at times, the sadness seems forced, and it is difficult to believe these two were parents to a child they loved. In their defense, they are roles beyond their age and experience, but they each could have gone further.
Another unfortunate casting situation is Lyon as Luke, their 10-year-old son. Lyon does a commendable job of portraying a 10-year-old; his speech is slowed and slightly slurred, and he scurries around in the air of a child; but at the end of the day, his height and his age (double that of his character) are difficult to ignore. It is unclear how old Luke is actually supposed to be until the second act, when it is finally revealed. Wardrobe unfortunately does not help the issue, and he seems to sometimes bounce between ages 6, 12 and 20. It seems this play would benefit from more age-appropriate casting, but this technique did not completely fail outright.
Though he is the last character to appear, Mr. Thermond (Caspar Brun), a resident of the “other world,” is the most memorable. Lurking barefoot in a suit complete with a bolo tie, a ponytail and haunting makeup, it is difficult to look away. His drawling Southern accent paired with the distinctive look makes him both charming and creepy. Acting as a sort of “spiritual guide” for Julie, he gives the play a very dark edge — something about him is just not right. His influence makes the inconclusive ending that much more thought-provoking.
Living Creatures is an incredibly imaginative and creative play that bravely tackles a difficult subject with innovation and poetry. Though still a bit rough around the edges, it is very enjoyable as a work of art and an exploration of emotions.
Living Creatures runs through Sunday, March 9 at the Massman Theatre.