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SCENES & MOTIONS: Not me. Us: six chances to connect

These plays may reflect our all-too-human longings

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Alliance Theatre
MAYBE HAPPY ENDING: Cathy Ang and Kenny Yang star at the Alliance Theatre.

Why should I step outside of my warm home where I am often tantalized with endless streaming of Amazon Prime and Netflix and CBS All Access ... and make my way to a live stage production on a chilly winter night? An experience that can pull me away from hearth and home is a performance that surprises me, upsets me, or makes me feel something, suddenly and deeply. 

That usually means art that puts me intimately in touch with someone else’s reality. I have yet to see the six productions described below, but from what I have read about them I believe they each share the same dramatic DNA. They offer the promise of a powerful or playful hour or two experiencing what it is to be alive and aware while sitting still in a room filled with strangers.

Maybe Happy Ending

Maybe Happy Ending is a sci-fi musical now playing at the Alliance Theatre through February 16. Set in Seoul, Korea, 50 years in the future, it is a tragicomic love story about two robotic servants known as “helperbots” living in an apartment building for obsolete models. Before they meet and fall in a certain type of “love,” Claire and Oliver are living alone and isolated like “hikikomori,” the Japanese cultural phenomenon in which people never leave their rooms for years at a time. 

The English-language premiere of Maybe Happy Ending in Atlanta is directed by Tony nominee Michael Arden (Once on This Island, Spring Awakening). ”Humanity has been around for a while and grown cynical,” says Arden. “Compared to humans, Claire and Oliver are innocent and trusting. They have a pure way of connecting to each other and to the larger world they discover together.” 

Composer Will Aronson and lyricist Hue Park shared their owns observation in their author’s note for the play. “It’s easy to imagine a future when people start to become indistinguishable from their electronic gadgets. But underneath this, all the old human longings and fears and dreams are still there, unchanged …. Once you take that risk and go out into the world, you have the possibility of experiencing something beautiful. But you don’t have any kind of guaranteed happy ending out of it. It’s all a question mark.” 

If the romantic sci-fi premise of Maybe Happy Ending isn’t a compelling enough emotional tractor beam to pull you in, this Alliance production is also full of stellar Broadway talent. This includes scenic design by Dane Laffrey (Once on This Island), costume design by Clint Ramos (The Rose Tattoo, Eclipsed), lighting design by Travis Hagenbuch, projections design by Sven Ortel (Newsies the Musical), and sound design by Peter Hylenski (Beetlejuice, Once on This Island). 

Originally written in Korean, Maybe Happy Ending premiered in Seoul in 2016 to smash success, winning six Korean Music Awards. Like so many other popular Alliance musical premieres, (Aida, The Color Purple, Bring It On, The Prom, etc.), it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future where Maybe Happy Ending ends up on Broadway and earns its own accolades.

$10-$85. Through Feb. 16. Alliance Theatre. 1280 Peachtree St. N.E. 404-733-4650. https://alliancetheatre.org/production/2019-20/maybe-happy-ending

This Random World: The Myth of Serendipity

“… the cascading series of coincidences neatly illustrates the idea that, as the title suggests, we are all hostages to chance.” — Charles Isherwood, The New York Times.

Since 1981, American playwright Steven Dietz has had over 50 of his plays and adaptations produced across the US and around the world; indeed, over the past 10 years, no living playwright has had as many of their plays produced on American stages. Out of Box Theatre is the first ATL ensemble to present Dietz’s This Random World: The Myth of Serendipity since it premiered at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville four years ago. More than one publication has described the play by saying it “asks the serious question of how often we travel parallel paths through the world without noticing.”

Dietz’s wistful comedy of missed connections reveals brief emotional moments in the lives of an aging mother, her grown son and daughter, and four other people all just one degree of separation away. Their stories intersect so closely that audiences are convinced they’ll all collide or converge sooner or later. But they … .

Dietz doesn’t go for the easy, expected dramatic payoff. In This Random World, serendipity is less about coincidental encounters down the street or at the other end of the world, and more about missing someone by a just few moments. None of Dietz’ characters will ever know what they’ve missed. But we will. And perhaps leave the theatre poignantly wondering, “if only…”

$22. Feb. 14-23. Out of Box Theatre, 585 Cobb Pkwy. S, Suite C-1, Marietta. 678-653-4605. http://www.outofboxtheatre.com/randomworld

Fun Home

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Freddie Ashley, Actor’s Express has had 13 seasons of popular success mounting bold productions of major musicals and critically acclaimed dramas. This track record is reason enough to buy a ticket to anything they do at their cozy quarters in the King Plow complex on the Westside. But by any theatrical standard, Fun Home is something special: a wholly original 90-minute musical about what happens when you finally see your parents through grown-up eyes.

The loyal fanbase for Alison Bechdel’s long-running Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip adored Fun Home as a graphic novel when it was published to rave reviews in 2006. By 2013, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori had adapted the book into a musical premiering Off Broadway at the Public Theater. Fun Home became a critical sensation once again, not only named Best Musical by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, but also a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama. After several reruns by popular demand, Fun Home moved to Broadway in 2015, where it won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Book for a Musical. The following year, the live cast recording won a Grammy award.

The TV ads for the first national tour screamed, “Welcome to a musical about a family that’s nothing like yours — and exactly like yours.” Okay. So, I wonder, how many of you can relate to this author’s wonder years? Alison’s autobiographical tale, which traces the childhood events that led to her becoming a graphic novelist, allows her to reflect upon herself at various points in the past — three ages, played by three actresses. The oldest version often shares the stage with one of the younger versions and looks sweetly or critically at herself at various points in her past. 

As Small Allison, she remembers her funeral director/home remodeler/high school teacher dad as spirited, eccentric, preoccupied, and demanding. She romps around the “fun home,” the family’s nickname for the funeral parlor, hiding in the coffins with her two brothers. She doesn’t realize her father is also a closeted, very repressed homosexual having secret affairs. Later, Medium Allison, the college freshman, finds the courage to come out as a lesbian, first to a female classmate she loves and later to her parents. Finally, looking back on her father’s struggles from the vantage point of middle age, she comes to believe that his untimely death must have been suicide.

I said I haven’t seen these productions. However, I did see the Broadway production of Fun Home with the original cast. I can tell you that the script is one of the best I’ve heard in a musical. Very smart and achingly honest. Incisive, wry, compelling, and yet, at certain moments, laugh-out-loud funny. But the music and the songs are what really make this piece of theater so moving and emotionally powerful. The music and lyrics are woven as effortlessly as the best works of Stephen Sondheim, and I can tell you from memory that the sounds of Fun Home seamlessly shift from giddy to gorgeous, melancholy to zany, angry to haunting, and, ultimately, to heartbreaking and luminous. 

Even if Actor’s Express does half as good a job as the Broadway cast, this Fun Home promises to be one of the highlights of the theater season.

$20-$40. Showtimes vary. Through Feb. 16. Actor’s Express, 87 West Marietta S.t N.W. Suite J-107. 404-607-7469. https://www.actors-express.com/plays/fun-home

Tribes

British playwright Nina Raine explained in a 2010 interview that the idea of writing Tribes came to her after she saw a documentary about a deaf couple who were expecting a child and were hoping it would be born deaf. It occurred to Raine that this family was essentially a tribe whose members wanted to pass on values, beliefs, and language to their children. Each tribe has its own rituals, hierarchies and ways of communicating that are often hard for “outsiders” to understand. She began to see that there were tribes everywhere, including individual families, religious communities, and groups like the (self-defined) deaf community. 

Raine’s play focuses on a dysfunctional middle-class British Jewish family with three grown children, all living at home. One of the two sons, Billy, born deaf, was raised to read lips and to speak but was never taught sign language. Billy’s family, like every other, behaves like a club with its own private language, jokes, and rules. In this Jewish household, arguments, no matter how heated, are considered an expression of love. 

But then Billy meets Sylvia, a hearing woman born to deaf parents who is now slowly going deaf herself. She hates that she’s losing her hearing and begins teaching Billy sign language. After learning about the values of the deaf community, Billy confronts his own family’s beliefs and values. Finally, it is the deaf family member who demands to be heard.

DramaTech, Georgia Tech’s student-run theatre organization, has been around for 73 years. Tribes is an award-winning script, and many productions feature a deaf actor in the role of Billy. This might well be a student production worth seeking out.

$8-$15. 8 p.m. February 7–15, DramaTech Theatre, 349 Ferst Drive. 404-894-3481. https://dramatech.org/events/

Wooden Nickels

In this new one-act play at Theatre Emory directed by Atlanta theatre legend Tim McDonough, two brothers from a Jewish family in Lubbock, Texas, tell the story of their father and his eccentric con-man cousin. Novelist Joseph Skibell (A Curable Romantic) wrote Wooden Nickles based on an essay about Jack Tiger, his father’s cousin, which first appeared in Skibell’s book My Father’s Guitar and Other Imaginary Things. Critic Dara Bramsom called the essay collection “a chronicle of experience and aging, the process within which a part of us — no matter how much we resist it — inevitably echoes our parents.” Others have compared Skibell’s style to “Mark Twain meets Isaac Bashevis Singer meets Wes Anderson.”

7:30 p.m. Feb. 26-29; 2 p.m., March 1.  , Theatre Emory, 1602 Fishburne Drive # 230. 404-727-0524. http://theater.emory.edu/home/shows-events/calendar.html#/?i=1

Stellaluna

When Stellaluna unexpectedly falls into the middle of a bird family’s home, the baby fruit bat is graciously accepted as one of them, but only if she acts like a bird. “Mama Bird told me I was upside down. She said I was wrong...” says the little bat. “Wrong for a bird, maybe, but not for a bat!” Eventually, Stellaluna finds other bats and reunites with her mother. She introduces the birds to her bat family, and she and the birds decide that, despite their many differences, they are still friends. This world premiere adaptation at the Center for Puppetry Arts celebrates self-discoveries, unlikely friendships, and how we can be so different yet feel so much the same. 

Creative wizard Jon Ludwig adapted the story and directed the original production, which has been mounted on the largest set ever built at the Puppetry Center, and where every visual detail is closely based on the beloved children’s book by Janell Cannon. The author said she wrote the book to demonstrate that feeling like “a bat in a bird’s world” was universal. She must have been right, because since its publication in 1993, Stellaluna has sold well over two million copies globally and been translated into 30 languages. 

$19.50 and $25. Showtimes vary. Through March 8.Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. N.W. https://puppet.org/programs/stellaluna-2/

Parents. Families. Memory. Childhood. Nesting. Dreams. I definitely see patterns here, and they’re matching my mood in this, my 60th winter.

So, brave the slight chill of Atlanta this February and March. Get inside a theatre, meet some of these all-too-human families, and see if you recognize some part of your soul in one or more of these characters. Sitting there in the dark, listening, you might also discover a new, even more fascinating version of yourself. — CL —



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