Life After is a powerful, poignant, and original look at a father’s death through the eyes of his teenage daughter

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

There are no “wrong” ways to mourn someone you love. Everyone is unique, as is every death. When it intrudes on the life of a teenager, death just adds something overwhelming to the whirling turmoil that already accompanies the adolescent years. As a longtime teacher, I bore witness again and again to such losses: the reactions and struggles of students losing parents or siblings or classmates left powerful imprints on my mind, as those lives left powerful imprints on the minds of those who knew them (including, sometimes, me). And although most of them did share the most overt trappings of dealing with death, each struggle was individual, shaped by the forces that shaped who that individual was in these still formative years.

All of which is to say that the universally understood pain and confusion of those left behind is not necessarily the same experience for everyone, as the new musical Life After by Canadian playwright Britta Johnson attests. In this play, we focus on sixteen-year-old Alice (played powerfully and compassionately by Samantha Williams) as she attempts to make sense of the sudden death of her self-help author father Frank (Paul Alexander Nolan). Because her final conversation with her dad—the morning of her sixteenth birthday, which was also the day he died—devolved into an uncharacteristic and nasty fight, she feels tremendous guilt, as many would, and finds herself believing that she was the cause of the sequence of events that led to his death, the sort of illogical and magical thinking that is practically universal in such cases.

Johnson, who herself lost her father in her teens (though this play is in no way autobiographical) spends most of the play within Alice’s mind, showing things as she remembers them and tries to come to grips with them. The play’s writer, composer, and lyricist counterpoints that imagined view of reality with moments of conversation that, though still filtered through her emotions and memories, more accurately reflect what she experiences. But it is the pain conjured by her distraught mind that shapes Alice’s feelings and actions, the kind of pain that is physically manifested here by a trio of intrusive (and often mockingly abusive, though funny) women that Johnson calls the Furies (Ashley Pérez Flanagan, Lauren Hobbs, and Chelsea Williams). (Quick note: the Furies, in mythology, were responsible for doling out justice to those who killed family members, which pretty much tells you where Alice’s mind is taking her.)

In these grief-altered moments, even her mother Beth (Bryonha Marie Parham, who lends her expressive voice to her character’s own efforts to regain control of her life) and her older sister Kate (Skyler Volpe, whose likable and supportive presence is a reminder that Kate did not share Alice’s warm relationship with her father) sometimes come off as rather unfeeling, as they each race (in Alice’s way of thinking) to move on from this loss. Johnson bluntly and cleverly inserts both of them into the first imagined Furies moment to allow us to witness Alice’s guilty mind at work; both of them join with the Furies in berating her for causing the death, and Kate seems more focused on the delicious tarts at the funeral and whether or not they fit with her newfound veganism. Meanwhile, that guilt conjures up multiple variations of her father’s final message to her—at one point, he even asks from beyond the grave, “Why did I choose this baffling, boringly beautiful place to die?”—left on her cell phone after the argument but not received until after his death. Replaying that message in her head, she fixates on his saying, “What a horrible way to say goodbye” as we learn incidentally that “the weather today is awful” and that he has a flight at 8:00, a point on which she will also fixate once she learns that his car-crash death occurred locally at 8:22: why was he even still in town at that time?

(Don’t worry: that isn’t really a spoiler, as we discover it early in the 90-minute production. There are other, later revelations that I won’t mention.)

Frank’s best-selling self-help manual, which forced him to travel far too often for Alice’s taste and which she has refused even to read, focuses on what he calls “transfor-motion,” the almost absurdly jejune notion that the best thing we can do is to “forgive (ourselves)” for whatever we have done: “Everyone has the right to make mistakes…you still deserve to be happy.” It’s a feel-good, “you can control this” mantra that resonates with his myriad fans but is lost on his youngest—and favorite—daughter, whose mind doesn’t favor feelings but facts. She’s even on her school’s debate team, and we see her teacher Ms. Hopkins (Jen Sese) at one point advising her that she needs to be more flexible in her thinking…but Alice rejects her favorite teacher’s decision to switch from the research and fact based one-on-one debate to impromptu speaking, which forces an immediate and personal reaction. (Ms. Hopkins chides her that she would “provide a citation after introducing yourself if you could,” and Alice’s only reaction is that “citations are important.”)

The only person in Alice’s life who is completely there for her during this time with no other agenda—even Kate, who outside of Alice’s mind confusion most certainly loves her and cares for her, has college and that fledgling veganism on her mind at all times—is her best friend Hannah (Lucy Panush, in a thoroughly engaging performance). Hannah tries to get her drunk on a bizarre concoction of “a little bit of everything my parents had in the house.” Neither of them drinks, but Hannah explains her thought process: “I was thinking about people on TV saying ‘wow I could really use a drink’ and this week I thought of you saying ‘wow, I could really use a drink’ so I brought you this drink.” Hannah is the kind of best friend everyone needs, and sweetly likable Panush shows us again and again why she is in Alice’s life. (A scene with her at a party waiting for Alice, not knowing about her dad’s death, while trying desperately to hold on to a box of cupcakes she brought for her best friend’s birthday, is one of the highlights of the musical.)

Johnson’s musical, which is still undergoing the evolutionary process that all musicals undergo as creators figure out what does and doesn’t work, is at this point realized in moments that are sometimes powerful, sometimes humorous, sometimes clearly actual memory, and sometimes Alice’s emotion-clouded memory, with a score that wraps around itself in little motifs that connect to specific moments and characters as those memories randomly flood her mind. Director Annie Tippe doesn’t even try to keep real and warped memories distinct because Alice herself is struggling with what she knows and thinks she knows, and the result is a constantly recycled montage of moments and motifs that blur and blend together to create the ongoing mystery of exactly what happened.

Tippe has great designers on her side to make all of this work. Todd Rosenthal’s set, lit imaginatively by Yi Zhao, is glorious and full of remarkable surprises as moments flow through memories both real and imagined. Ann Yee’s choreography is both hilarious (since it almost always involves the Furies) and brilliant. (Speaking of those imagined goddesses, Sarafina Bush’s costumes make them, especially, pop.) And all of the overlapping voices are captured perfectly in Joanna Lynne Staub’s sound design. Typical of Goodman, this is a plethora of genius.

As I watched the show and thought about it afterwards, my mind revolved around two recent musicals that I completely adore. Fun Home, which tells the story of cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s life and coming out, along with her father’s death, seems the easiest point of comparison, though Bechdel was in her forties when her father took his own life. At one point, as her father is struggling with his own sexuality, Bechdel’s adult character, remembering the moment, desperately wishes she could have said something to him that could show that she understood. Perhaps a better, though more opaque, comparison might be to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Next to Normal, in which a teen struggles with the loss of a mother not through death but through schizophrenia. In that show, as in Life After, a small ensemble shows the power and pain of that loss as well as the deep emotional pit in which the brain, struggling to handle it, can swallow rational thinking and even love.

Johnson’s show is not fully formed yet, but it already shows signs of being able to join in that pantheon. It’s a lovely, funny, painful, and beautiful musical—its final numbers, “Snow” and “Poetry,” absolutely stun, as does Williams’ performance as she sings them. In “Poetry,” especially, when she is alone on the stage as the falling snow—the best I’ve ever seen onstage—and her memories connect Alice to her living father, the moment is so perfect that I’m quite sure it already has indelibly implanted itself in my own memory.

Life After is at Goodman Theatre through July 17, a run that is far too short if you ask me. Do yourself a favor and seek it out.

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