Strawdog Theatre’s new play opens with one actress standing in a focus light in front of the stage platforms staring straight ahead.
“I don’t know what to say,” she says after a moment, and the lights black out.
An unusual opening, to be sure, but, as Karissa Murrell Myers’ On the Greenbelt is a play about the death of a parent and the effect it—and secrets that come out while dealing with it—has on those left behind, the opening makes perfect sense. Indeed, it perfectly encapsulates a reasonable emotional reaction to such an event. As it happens, though, Jules (played by Kathryn Acosta) has even more reason to be speechless.
This was the second consecutive show I’ve seen that deals with the acceptance of death (after Remy Bumppo’s The Year of Magical Thinking), but the two plays are not at all the same. Whereas the Remy Bumppo play deep dives into the complicated, pain-induced journey of a single person dealing with profound loss, On the Greenbelt is an ensemble show that is as much about family relationships as it is about the death of a loved one. Acosta’s layered performance invites us into the unraveling of these relationships after Jules’ mother’s death as much as it follows the character’s self-implosion as she tries to deal with it. (Lynne Baker, who plays Lydia, the mother, also creates a multileveled character even though she has far fewer scenes in which to do so, almost all of which are confined to a hospital bed.) Acosta, a very likable actor, is able to channel her own positive energy even when Jules is at her angriest and most despondent, preventing the portrayal from becoming maudlin.
Aiding in that is Myers’ somewhat unusual script, which travels back and forth in time and frequently has Jules calling out to the Powers That Be to stop, rewind, and try a remembered moment again, sometimes because she realizes she is misremembering it but other times because she just wants it to end better. This device is certainly interesting, but because Jules is not the sole perspective character it seems odd: does Myers want us to see the whole play through her, even when she is not onstage? Also, Jules uses this Dr. Strange-like ability only sometimes, so it does get confusing: surely, she should use it to reconfigure some of the even more emotionally wraught moments we see her living through here. It’s a fun device but not well used or thought out. Still, it does make things so that we never linger too long in arguments.
This is not to say that we don’t get to see some doozies, though. Director Jonathan Berry leads his actors through some very strong emotions, which at one point degenerate into a beautifully choreographed (by Sam Hubbard) fistfight, one of the most realistic ones I have seen. Both Berry and Hubbard deserve a lot of credit for maneuvering five bodies around a small and already crowded space during a dangerously provocative moment in ways that feel natural.
With what Jules and the others are going through, it would almost seem weird if a fight or two didn’t break out. Scenes with her brother Jake (Dan Lin) highlight the slow disolution of what apparently was once a close relationship. This breakdown, certainly helped along by Lydia’s death, has actually been going on since Jake inexplicably (to the other characters) married a seemingly one-dimensional nurse named Mallory (Jessica Ervin in a performance that is quite funny before it becomes more poignant). The rest of the family sees his choice as beneath him, motivated less by love and common sense than by horniness. That extended family also includes Jake’s and Jules’ father, Alan (Jamie Vann), and Jules’ queer lover, Olivia (Alexis Ward), who is a secret she is keeping from Alan and the extremely conservative and religious Lydia.
It is easy to see why, in remembering all of this, Jules opens with “I don’t know what to say.”
The play is staged on two large rolling platforms designed by Yeaji Kim, separating Jules’ studio apartment from Lydia’s hospital room and providing space downstage to play scenes taking place elsewhere. It’s a clever bit of design—especially the way the Kim only vaguely suggests the walls of the spaces, and Trey Brazeal’s understated lighting works nicely with it. (I did sort of wish they might have found a way to better suggest the time shifts, but that’s a minor point.)
This play only briefly ventures onto the Greenbelt itself, a stretch of parkland surrounding the city of Boise, Idaho, and the place where Lydia wanted her ashes spread. The personal trouble that this family has while getting to it underscores the trauma that death—and secrets—brings out. What should be a sweet remembrance is a nonstarter from the outset, as Jules fails to show up for the dawn ceremony, having decided to drown her memories in a bottle of gin. Throughout the play, the Greenbelt represents both closure and a kind of acceptance that isn’t easy to come by even though it is obviously desirable.
This difficult, painful, and highly dramatic play works well because of Berry and the performances he gets from his cast despite some confusion created by Myers’ otherwise powerful script. Since Strawdog no longer has a permanent home, the play is being performed at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. through May 28. Tickets are available from strawdog.org, which is now a pay what you want organization. Despite this, on a beautiful spring Saturday evening, there were only a handful of people watching. The show deserves better, though I must admit that the school-style chairs in the house were very uncomfortable. My butt and my back also deserved better. I suggest that you bring a cushion.