By Glenn Rifkin
It’s impossible not to be moved by Lauren Gunderson’s elegant, understated writing.
The Heath by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Sean Daniels. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theatre at 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through March 10.
At 37, Lauren Gunderson is among the most produced playwrights in America, with more than 20 of her plays, including the award-winning I and You, having received stagings around the country in recent years. Gunderson is not only prolific, but a wonderful storyteller with a sharp wit, a disarming contemporaneousness, and a knowing embrace of theater, poetry, music, and science.
She has formed a strong bond with Sean Daniels, the artistic director at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell. The world premiere production of this work marks Gunderson’s fourth collaboration with Daniels at the MRT.
The Heath is a departure for Gunderson. The script is an autobiographical examination of love, family, the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease, and, ultimately, about her own struggle with a deep-seated sense of guilt. The evening is intensely personal and revealing. It is also an opportunity for Gunderson to add music into a drama that features a metaphorical embrace of King Lear. The show contains four of the dramatist’s own compositions, along with several traditional southern bluegrass tunes,
And it all comes close to succeeding, with moments of sheer clarity and brilliance. But, ultimately, the play is weighed down by a bit too much Lear as well as a bit too little chemistry between Miranda Barnett and George Judy, who make up the cast. Finally, a final musical number that’s required to soar falls sadly flat.
The play is a manifestation of Gunderson’s imagined encounter with her deceased grandfather, K.D. Martin (Judy), who has died after a long struggle and descent into the darkness of Alzheimer’s. Lauren (Barnett) reflects on the impact of his death by summoning PawPaw (southern for grandfather) to the stage to converse while she explores what, for her, was a tortuous, guilt-filled loss.
In an exuberant first scene, the gifted and appealing Barnett faces the audience and sings a hymn by Robert Lowry:
“My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear that music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
This song, she says, is what came to her upon hearing of PawPaw’s death in 2012. With a comic beat she corrects herself, “That’s not true. I was in Hawaii eating a fish taco” when the news came of PawPaw’s death.
She then offers a dizzying explanation of what the play is about, bouncing from “It’s a play about a banjo,” to “It’s a play about metaphors” to “It’s a play about Lear” and “It’s a play about him, PawPaw.”
“It’s a play about buying a ticket to a play I wrote and I’m telling you I don’t know what to say about the thing I wrote a play about,” Lauren admits, speaking directly to the audience members who giggled at having just paid for those tickets.
Judy, a Shakespeare veteran and professor of theater at Louisiana State University, arrives as PawPaw. He has most of the play’s best laugh lines, but his attempt to infuse King Lear into the drama, despite his impressive credentials, turns out to be strangely uninspiring.
Rising from his wheelchair to take on the role of Lear, PawPaw shambles up to “the heath” and rages about “the tempest in my mind” while a massive storm rages around him. Just as Lear is descending into madness, PawPaw is also disappearing into the black maw. Lauren, turning serious, adds a last descriptor: “It’s about a storm that means madness and mortality and violence and anger and all things natural and destructive and unfair. The things we yell down without hope of reprieve.”
Ever ambitious, Gunderson took banjo lessons so she could add a series of songs to the mix, to honor PawPaw’s undying love of Flatt & Scruggs, the famed bluegrass duo. Barnett also learned some rudimentary banjo, and she does an admirable job of plucking out and singing such stalwarts as “You Are My Sunshine” and “I’ll Fly Away.” But, ultimately, there are a few too many songs and ever decreasing emotional impact.
The power of the play is rooted in Gunderson’s search for meaning in her lifelong relationship with this man whom she abandoned towards the end of his life. Was that bond forged in a happy childhood real? Had she become so self-absorbed that she lost touch with, or perhaps never really knew who this man was? By resurrecting his life in hindsight, she is searching to understand “why he doesn’t know my name anymore” and to make sense of her selfishness and guilt.
It’s impossible not to be moved by Gunderson’s elegant, understated writing. At the end, Lauren turns to the audience and says, “This was supposed to be a great play about madness and old men and great stories that defy death. It is a story about how I didn’t show up. And how I didn’t bother to `look there.’ But I do now. Every night. A body ends. A story doesn’t. If we keep telling it.”
Had the curtain closed then, the play might have left a lasting impression. Instead, Lauren takes out the banjo one more time and sings “Storm Still,” a lamentation written by Gunderson. It’s an audacious move by the playwright and had Bonnie Raitt been playing Lauren, it might have worked. It needed heft and drama. Instead, Barnett is not a strong enough singer to bring it off and what might have been/should have been a poignant coda, becomes a misstep into unnecessary tone deafness.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was recently published by McGraw-Hill.