In “Light Falls,” a death teaches a lot about how to live

Photo by Randall Starr

“There’s nobody looking,” the woman in the middle of the stage (played by Kendra Thulin) says. Her name, she tells us, is Christine, and from the sneaky tones in her voice, it’s easy to see that she is doing something she shouldn’t be doing, even if we don’t know (yet) what it might be. There is something else, something we can’t possibly read from her voice or her demeanor or her words because she herself doesn’t know it: by the end of this, the opening monologue of Simon Stephens’ provocative Light Falls, she will be dead.

The 2019 play, now playing its US premiere in a production from Steep Theatre directed by Robin Witt, is a tale about how we live our lives as if there is “nobody looking,” doing things we shouldn’t, taking other things (and people) for granted, and acting as if there are no connections at all between us that might bring ramifications to our actions. Here, Christine’s sudden and unexpected death (from a subarachnoid hemorrhage, if you’re keeping score, but it could have been from anything) throws her husband’s and children’s worlds out of balance.

Not that any of them were actually in balance before: when we meet them (at the very moment of Christine’s death), the son is desperately struggling in law school, almost ready to give up; one daughter has recently tried (and failed) to kill herself; the other is an elementary school teacher who spends a lot of her nights drinking and picking up men in bars. And we meet the husband as he is beginning a pre-planned three-way (one that does not include Christine) at a hotel. The family that Christine has left behind is actually a bit of a mess, but probably no more so than any other family.

Stephens sets his play in towns in England’s north—Blackpool, Doncaster, Durham, Ulverston, Stockport—and uses that setting as a kind of moral backdrop. An anthem of the north country runs through the play, sung by the actors. In the original script it is literally “Hymn of the North,” but this production uses a haunting bespoke song written by Witt and music director Thomas Dixon called “The Great North Road” to tie these people to the strengths and sensibilities, the wishes and the dreams of the land they call home.

Sotirios Livaditis’ wide open, multi-level set includes visual homages to family life in the dressers, desks, and other furniture pieces that hang from the ceiling along its edges. I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve actually been able to see the full extent of Theater Wit’s Theater One stage, and the emptiness itself is a metaphor for the holes in the lives of these people. We mostly see them using only small sections of the stage each, to the point where we are privy to multiple simultaneous moments that still manage to be distanced from each other. (Only the funeral reception scene, set solely on the central platform, creates an intimate feeling. It’s also the only scene in which there is furniture on the stage instead of just on the walls—or maybe in the memories?)

Stephens creates these intricately overlapping scenes to show that this family, though they are disconnected and living separate lives, is still one unit, even if they don’t always know that. There are many elements that run through these scenes that tie them together, from “The Great North Road” to a sudden torrential downpour that begins at the moment of Christine’s death to agonized roars from each family member to various characters (all played by Thulin) who appear almost randomly throughout the play. At least one of them is literally Christine’s ghost (though there is another one who appears wearing the light blue coat she was wearing when she died). She appears to her troubled daughter Ashe (very emotionally and genuinely performed by Ashlyn Lozano) so that the younger woman’s emotional instability won’t lead to another suicide attempt and leave two-year-old Leighton—Christine’s only grandson—alone. We do meet the child’s deluded junky of a father (Debo Balogun); he isn’t really in the picture, for which Ashe can thank the gods (though she could have used the child support he doesn’t pay).

Also on Christine’s last day alive, we meet her older daughter Jess (Stephanie Mattos) waking from a very late, drunken Sunday night. The man who brought her home from the bar, a truly decent fellow named Michael (Nate Faust), has stayed the night at her request, and throughout the days following her mother’s death, they discover that there is at least a chance that they could work together. Both Mattos and Faust are wonderfully sympathetic in these roles as two people seemingly randomly thrust together by a bizarre circumstance, and (though the play only hints vaguely at possibilities) they are easy to root for.

Also easy to root for is son Steven (Brandon Rivera), who is meeting with his flight attendant boyfriend Andy (Omer Abbas Salem until July 24, August Foreman after that) when he gets the news. Andy, who does seem to love Steven, has built himself a stable life, whereas Steven’s seems less stable by the minute. With his boyfriend’s support, though, (and probably a change of career direction) he’ll be fine.

Less sympathetic is Christine’s widower, Bernard. Though Peter Moore does his best to make this clueless fool someone we might like, not much can mitigate the circumstances in which we meet him as his wife is collapsing in a local market. Still, his case is not uncommon: Bernard is a middle-aged man, grown slightly fat, who desperately needs to see himself as desirable to women. He eats like a garbage disposal—the waitress (played of course by Thurin, who shows off a sarcastic, smirky side here) is flabbergasted by the amount he orders for himself and his two guests. So are they, for that matter, but his long-time friend and sometime lover Michaela (Cindy Marker) and the too-bubbly friend (Susaan Jamshidi) she has brought along to complete the threesome are perfectly happy to roll with what’s happening until he makes a complete mess of things.

Thurin is remarkable throughout the play in all of her roles, and her performance as Christine grounds the whole thing. As she unspools to us a play-by-play of her death, she focuses on what that moment tells her about the nature of time.

“Time does not move forward,” she tells us. “We don’t live our lives in one direction. Everything we
have ever done we are doing now. Everything we will ever do we have already done
and we are still doing it and it is ongoing.”

It’s a bit of a “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” concept that ultimately sets up the rest of the play and allows her to give us a speech that, though far from monotone, is detached enough from her own troubled and volatile life—she was an alcoholic trying vainly to stop drinking—that she seems as interested in recounting statistics about other deaths as she is in her own. It isn’t fatalism; it’s just that her dying has ironically helped her to see that living is the most important thing. and through her death the rest of her family begins to understand that how you live is far more important than how you die. Each of them, especially Lozano’s Ashe, who is utterly transformed by her experience (but then she did get a visit from her dead mom) values life much differently now.

An old adage tells us to “dance like there’s no one watching.” In Light Falls, Stephens takes that a step further, admonishing us to live like there’s no one watching, but in ways that make ourselves and our world better. For a play so steeped in death, that’s a heck of a positive message.

Light Falls, produced by Steep Theatre, is playing at Theater Wit through August 13.

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