There are a lot of words in Beginning Again, the play by David Alan Brown now making its world premiere at Alleyway Theatre. Words like grief, mourning, suffering--words that delineate emotional pain. And words like myth, truth, reality--words that intellectuals and philosophers have grappled with, well, since there have been intellectuals and philosophers.
Enter Noland Oliver (David Hayes), famous intellectual critic suffering deeply over the death in an accident of his beloved wife. He does as he has always done, “use and define words,” as if in talking about and attempting to define myth and truth and reality and grief and mourning and suffering he can ameliorate the feelings he despises in himself. Here is a man who has spent his entire life living in his head and now his heart is broken, and he is at sea. He is embarrassed by his feelings, as though they are a black sheep relative clinging to his leg for all to see.
The play is 90 minutes in three acts with a short interlude between each act during which the audience remains seated.
In the first act, Oliver is on a train reading the paper when a heavyset young woman, Anita (Smirna Mercedes-Perez) with several bags, and wearing a bright T-shirt with an obscene message, sits down next to him. She is the antithesis of the buttoned-down critic. They begin to talk. He talks to her about creating her own life and her own world, telling her that people are trying to manipulate others all the time. She tells him that he thinks too much. No surprise there. As they talk, and his suffering and difficulty dealing with his feelings become apparent, their roles reverse. She becomes the teacher, a trash-talking earth-mother with a message.
In Act Two, which takes place some months later, Oliver meets up with a wise(?) fisherman, Gene (Tom Owen) who encounters him sobbing on his knees near a stream in the forest. They eat apples and talk about life and death and myth versus truth versus reality, as if the words were boxers or wrestlers in the ring, boxing being sport and wrestling spectacle, as you will learn.
Act Three takes place some months later in an art gallery with Oliver and his 20-year-old son, Dante (Adam Hayes), who is still in deep grief over the loss of his mother. They go back and forth about “neat little meanings and tight little morals,” and “life that struggles against death,” as Oliver challenges his son to feel the famous paintings they are viewing. Has he come to terms with those black sheep feelings at last?
David Hayes as Oliver carries the through-line of the play very capably, the age-old struggle between intellect and feeling, between how we want life to be and how life is, and what happens to us when we rail against the natural order. Mr. Hayes does not leave character as he moves through his suffering. He is the quintessential intellectual at first raging, and then begrudgingly accepting that his human feelings are not to be denied.
Ms. Mercedes-Perez is very good as Anita, who serves as the earthy, emotional foil to Mr. Hayes’ cerebral ramblings. She is comfortable with who she is and makes no bones about it. Mr. Owen is fine as the fisherman, going head-to-head and toe-to-toe with Oliver. And Adam Hayes as Dante, the son trying to emulate the father, has some fine moments, as when he talks about his new girlfriend, and a few that feel awkward as he attempts deeper feeling.
The simple sets designed by Neal Radice, who also directs and designed lights and sound - whew! - work very well. As Director, Mr. Radice has his actors bring enough emotion to the characters, particularly Oliver, to keep the play from being just an intellectual exercise with occasional current catchphrases like “be here now,” upon which precipice it teeters from time to time.
I did feel like Eliza Doolittle occasionally, “words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…” However, the feelings of grief and suffering felt by Noland and Dante Oliver, and the ideas discussed in the play are important and interesting ones, and I must admit at times I wanted to enter the fray and add my two-cents worth to the proceedings.
Beginning Again is at Alleyway Theatre until March 10th. Bring your thinking cap.
(ends Mar 10th)