Death be not proud: Raven Theatre’s The Luckiest confronts the end in the most positive way possible

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Sometimes things just seem aligned by fate. That was the case for me this weekend, as I found myself watching three consecutive plays dealing with the acceptance of death. (See my reviews of On the Greenbelt and The Year of Magical Thinking.) Though they all are very strong, the third play, Raven Theatre’s production of Melissa Ross’s The Luckiest, is by far the most optimistic and enjoyable of the three. This is largely due to the fated-to-die character, Lissette—no spoiler here: her fate is made clear in the very first scene. Lissette (played with grace, humor, and intelligence by Cassidy Slaughter-Mason) may be dying, but she wants absolutely no one to feel sorry for her. To this end, she has her best friend, Peter (Christopher Wayland) throw her what basically is a Death Party.

Undoubtedly, someone out there is thinking this is the worst, most insane, most morbid idea any character has ever had, but that is exactly the point: it isn’t. Lissette simply realizes that she wishes to go out on her own terms, as a joyful, creative, and truly fun person…which will not be possible if she allows her disease (ALS) to take her. She can’t even imagine dying that death, locked in her own body until it suffocates her. So she simply makes different arrangements. We can add this to the (not very long) list of “I want to die my way” plays, which includes the powerful Whose Life Is It Anyway?

The thing with both of those plays is that, though others may find it horrifying (Lissette’s mom Cheryl, played by the incomparable Tara Mallen, fulfills that role here for a while), there is nothing morose or suicidal about these main characters. In fact, both of them are fully content with the lives they have led, but it’s time; they have reached the end of their roads. And as I watched Slaughter-Mason deliver a powerful, painful monologue about ALS and what—specifically—it does to its victims, I sat there thinking that, in Lissette’s shoes, I’d make the same choice. In a heartbeat.

This does not mean that, once the decision is made, everything is happy-happy-joy-joy. In fact, even though that opening scene shows us a party-day Lissette in an electric wheelchair struggling just to speak while conveying with her smile and her eyes just how content she is with all of this, there are plenty of other scenes, as the disease progresses and she finds herself increasingly unable to control her own body, that are painful to watch.

Foremost among these are scenes with her mother. Cheryl is a down-to-Earth Boston mom who takes life as it comes and has taught her daughter to do the same, but of course, she thinks this idea is absolutely nuts. This is also Peter’s initial reaction, though the stalwart best friend ends up agreeing to do whatever it takes to ease Lissette’s passing (though a Vermont doctor will be the one who actually assists.) There is plenty of emotion in scenes between Lissette and each of them and, since this is a three-person play, there are lots of opportunities for them.

Playwright Ross and director Cody Estle make sure that all three of these fine actors have chances to shine, and there is not an inauthentic moment to be found. In memory scenes, we see Lissette joyfully flirting with the gay Peter at a party: from the moment they meet, they might as well be the only people in the room (and the play design makes them exactly that). This is genuine and beautiful without ever even approaching schmaltzy sentimentality; Ross knows how to craft a scene and create instantly likable characters. Not even Peter’s utter lack of any kind of love life can make him maudlin when he is paired with such a powerfully optimistic force. Mallen’s Cheryl detours from the hands-off person she has always been at her daughter’s news…of course she does…but ultimately finds her way back, as her love for and faith in Lissette fuel just about everything she does.

Plays about death, particularly about the drawn-out, agonizing death brought by ALS, are not generally funny or fun to watch. These actors, along with their director and the playwright, belie that truism here. This play is, ironically, full of life, even though there are struggles and tears. I can’t think of a better way to end my three-play waltz with death.

Tickets are available at raventheatre.org; the play lasts 90 minutes and runs through June 19.

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