Written and Directed By Daniel Grieg
With Music by Gordon McIntyre
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
After tackling the problem of evil in his successful 1978 “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner addressed existentialism, particularly the meaning of life, in his 1986 “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters.” This latter title could easily be the subtitle of Daniel Grieg’s “Midsummer” currently playing at The Clurman Theatre in Manhattan.
On the longest day of the year, Midsummer, Helena and Bob meet by chance and celebrate mid-life in Edinburgh’s midsummer. Their serendipitous encounter results in each (and both) evaluating where they have been, where they are, and where they would like to be in their thirty-fifth year and beyond. Daniel Grieg’s engaging script is touching, challenging, and life-affirming. His use of narration and dialogue to provide characterization, exposition and conflict is brilliant. Helena and Bob’s confrontation with their various demons (including their secrets) is not unlike the annual brushes with powerful forces on Midsummer’s Eve.
“Midsummer festivals are celebrated throughout Scotland, notably in the Scottish Borders where Peebles holds its Beltane Week. The Eve of St. John has special magical significance. Traditionally St John’s Eve (like the eve of many festivals) was seen as a time when the veil between this world and the next was thin, and when powerful forces were abroad. Vigils were often held during the night and it was said that if you spent a night at a sacred site during Midsummer Eve, you would gain the powers of a bard, on the down side you could also end up utterly mad, dead, or be spirited away by the fairies.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midsummer and http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/midsummers-day.html)
Bob and Helena often step out of character and become narrators, providing the audience with needed exposition and distance from the characters themselves. In one of these “editorial moments” Bob responds to Helena’s thoughts about ‘this being It’ with “Disappointment will become our default position as each bright dream of our youth is snuffed out one after the other after the other.”
The lyrics of Gordon McIntyre’s soulful songs also allow the audience to examine the inner life of the characters (as well as their own psyches). In the “Song of Oblivion,” Bob longs for a devil-delivered dose of “drink, darkness, pain” and then to have it all taken away. And in another of Bob’s songs he affirms “We – can do anything tonight.” This significant realization counterpoints with Helena’s assent to the possibility of a new life when she exclaims, “Yes, I say yes.”
Under the playwright’s direction, Matthew Pidgeon (Bob) and Cora Bissett (Helena) bring their characters and the characters from their “secret lives” with precision and often shocking realism. The conflicts Helena and Bob have with Helena’s nephew Brendan, Big Tiny Tam Callaghan, Eyebrows Thompson, and Bob’s son Aidan drive the plot of “Midsummer” and bring the play to a profound and somewhat unexpected climax and conclusion.
Realizing that “change is possible” not only when paying at the car park but also in life, Helena says, “And it felt amazing – just for a second – and then the sun came up – and I remembered who I am and where I am and … well … you know.” This development occurs subtly in “Midsummer” and shows Helena’s dynamic character. Earlier she says,” “Life deals us the cards and it turns out we don’t even play them we simply turn them over and see what we’ve got. The pack gets shuffled when you’re born and all the rest’s just a slow unwinding. You might think life’s a game of poker but in fact it’s a game of patience.” And in a humorous and gripping scene, Bob in a conversation with his penis, Bob’s “other half” shares its feelings about being mid-life and in a crisis and attached to Bob. “Bob. You and I are not young men anymore. I’m fed up with being in different beds, in different places – I’m fed up with all of that. Our adventuring days – maybe they’re over.”
“Midsummer” proposes the profound possibility that human beings can reflect upon their “practice” and make the adjustments necessary to move forward into renewed personalities and possibilities. In a flash back to the Japanese Rope Bondage at Midsummer Night’s Cream (yes, you read that right: Shakespeare abounds) “In the end, can you point to your child and say this – this life is better because of me?” And, speaking to his child Aidan, Bob testifies that “We all come from the past. We all come from the past and we are all going towards the future. This is it, this is what happens – you are where you come from and you go where you go.”
Kudos to Cora Bissett, Matthew Pidgeon and the Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation for bringing David Grieg’s play to New York City so we can celebrate with Edinburgh Festival Fringe this resplendent foray into “Midsummer” and all the magic is brings. As Bob and Helena sit quietly, Bob conjectures, “They agree that you know you really like someone when you’re comfortable being silent with them.” It is in the silence of the Clurman Theatre that the audience realizes that “change is possible” and often necessary.