Directed by Jack Cummings III
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Terrence McNally’s “And Away We Go,” currently running at The Pearl Theatre Company, has the capacity to shake even the most torpid theatre-goers to tears. In fact, it literally shakes the theatre! The Pearl’s 30th Season world premiere celebrates the endurance of the theatre throughout the ages and consecrates the “spirit” of the theatre that transcends time and space. That spirit has survived all plagues (ancient and modern), all revolutions, all man-made and natural disasters, and all fiscal challenges (local and global). Indeed, all of these challenges have served to strengthen the entity we call the theatre and make it even more resilient and more resplendent. “Away We Go” is pure theatrical brilliance.
During the Prologue, the actors enter one by one. Each respectfully and lovingly kisses the stage, introduces him or herself, and shares most favorite and least favorite role. Each also shares one thing the audience should know before the performance begins. At the Saturday matinee before opening night, Rachel Botchan shares that she just realized she was not wearing the jacket she was supposed to be wearing for her performance. This honesty puts the audience at ease and paves the way for a night of bewitching and beguiling live theatre unlike anything that has been on stage in a very long time.
These six splendid actors portray over thirty characters that, across the ages, have understood and celebrated the “idea of artistic community” and take the audience on a “whirling, imaginative journey through the joys, missteps, anxieties, and triumphs that have faced theatre companies across the ages” (Kate Farrington, PTC Artistic Director). The ensemble cast responds generously to Jack Cummings III’s splendid and inventive direction and unanimously gives rich, authentic, and genuine performances, portraying a cross section of thespians and theatre professionals as they gather backstage to ply their craft and ponder the future of their theatre.
In Athens in 458 B.C.E. at the Theatre of Dionysus, a frustrated actor Dimitris (Sean McNall) blusters backstage about his unfinished mask. In the South Bank of London in 1610 at the Globe Theatre, Richard Burbage’s wife Gretna (Donna Lynne Champlin) struggles to fit into the backstage banter about the business of theatre. At the Royal Theatre of Versailles in 1789, a playwright Christophe Durant (Micah Stock) defends his work against the King’s censor. Leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1896 Moscow, delivery boy Pavel Leshmenev (Micah Stock) whispers words of revolution to the theatre’s anxious cleaning woman Nina Kozlovsky (Donna Lynne Champlin).
Anxiety continues in 1956 at the South Florida Coconut Grove Playhouse. Backstage after a poorly received performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Lucine Gershwin an irate subscriber (Carol Schultz) decides she needs “to speak for the audience” and complain that the theatre needs to produce plays that “shake their fist at God,” not Godot. This scene morphs into a scene which includes the actors from Athens, England, France, Russia, Florida, and the present converging in one common backstage place. This is an electrifying and emotional scene which leaves few dry eyes in the audience and reminds the audience that theatre has always been “something very special: a safe place for some of the greatest plays ever written – and maybe some that maybe weren’t so great.”
Interwoven is the theme of the survival of the theatre – survival as a concept as well as the survival of theatre companies locally and globally. Mr. McNally’s script grabs at the very heart of the theatre and the collective heart of the audience. At the end of the play, in the present, theatre company executive director Shirley Channing (Carol Schultz) gathers her actors and creative team to hear the important announcement from board member Anne Tedesco-Boyle (Donna Lynne Champlin) that she is donating sufficient money to allow the company to continue its plans for the next season.
Sandra Goldmark’s leviathan set is all about the business of the theatre: it pulls the audience into the theatre’s world of sets, costumes, props, lighting fixtures, and workspaces. Front and center is the ghost light, the same ghost light Archie turns on at the end of the play after Godot understudy Peter (Sean McNell) dies quietly in the midst of friends. Stage manager Gordon calls “House to half, Go. House out, Go. Cue music, Go. Lights up, Go.” The backstage is now empty and all the actors have found their places. “And Away We Go” is a remarkable play that will most likely have a future beyond its current magical run at the very special Pearl Theatre Company. Be sure to see it before December 15th.