By Hamish Linklater
Directed by Scott Elliott
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“And the wheel goes round and round./And the flame in our souls will never burn out./And the wheel, and the wheel goes round.” – Rosanne Cash, “Wheel”
Under the brooding branches that overarch Derek McLane’s visually stunning set that “goes round,” Julie’s (played with sumptuous death-dodging life by Grace Van Patten) life coalesces into a gripping surreal reality in Hamish Linklater’s “The Whirligig” which is currently running at The Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre. As she lies dying in her hospital bed (and later in her bed at home), Julie unwittingly is the center of a maelstrom of guilt and grief – a “whirligig of time” as Shakespeare might describe it, bringing in “his revenges” (Feste in “Twelfth Night,” Act 5, Scene 1).
Julie’s untimely death reunites her estranged parents Michael (played with a powerful emotional depth by Norbert Leo Butz) and Kristina (played with a deep-seated disconsolate resentment by Dolly Wells) and her best friend Trish (played with a depressive conniving spirit by Zosia Mamet). Her dying also generates fascinating glimpses into the lives of Trish’s husband Greg (played with the steadiness rooted in recovery by Alex Hurt) and a local high school teacher Mr. Cormeny (played with an inebriated joviality by Jon DeVries) who meet with Michael at the local bar when he returns to the Berkshires to be with Julie. These encounters provoke a scintillating series of flashbacks that contribute to the provenance of Julie’s demise.
While summoning the courage to visit Julie, Trish meets Derrick (played with the innocence of suspicion by Jonny Orsini) and their conversations on one of the tree limbs outside Julie’s bedroom window provide extensive exposition. The audience learns who Derrick is, what his relationship was to Julie, and how he is related to Patrick (played with a winning but conflicted persona by Noah Bean) Julie’s doctor. In the first scene, there is a playful exchange between Julie and Michael about Patrick’s role: doctor or chef. What is disclosed later is that Patrick’s role in Julie’s life has been far more complicated than his present role as her “healer.” All the play’s flashbacks are similar in their disclosure of important exposition and investment in Julie’s illness and imminent death. For all of Julie’s friends and family, this visit is perhaps the first time any of them said “anything real.”
Mr. Linklater’s characters are all well-rounded, authentic characters with believable traits and rich and complex conflicts that successfully drive the engaging plot of “The Whirligig.” As an actor, Mr. Linklater knows what works in characterization and has developed his characters with sensitivity and care. Under Scott Elliott’s thoughtful and embracing direction, the characters “unfold” in layers of surprising details. It is not easy to compress years of history into two hours and twenty minutes: revealing not only the surface details of each character but the bountiful underbelly of the individuals who gather to struggle to say good-bye to Julie and deal with their often-insurmountable guilt surrounding the end of her young life.
Derek McLane’s set spins slowly as characters enter and exit scenes – the hospital, the bar, the backyard, Patrick’s apartment, Julie’s room at home – and windows in the background “mysteriously” line up with the window in Julie’s room. The audience and the characters cleverly switch roles as voyeurs and bona fide visitors. Jeff Croiter’s lighting adds to the deep moodiness, oppressive emotional weight, and ennui framed by Mr. McLane’s low-hanging tree branches. Jeremy Chernick’s stunning special effects support the rich setting.
“The Whirligig” is a gripping psychodrama that explores the intricate dynamics of grief, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Rarely has a play – ostensibly about the death of an addicted character – had the ability to engage the audience on so many significant and life-changing levels. Despite Julie’s often unhealthy choices, she manages to assemble at her bedside a host of “souls [who] never burn out.” Mr. Linklater’s impressive play is a must see and a Theatre Reviews Limited “Best Bet.”