Plays performed down in Portland Center Stage's Ellen Bye Studio are always intimate productions, but The
Last Five Years, which Stephen and I saw the other night, is even more so than usual. It's like standing, invisible, between a man and a woman, bearing witness to the most intimate moments of their entire relationship. From beginning to end. From hope to crash and burn. With singing!
One of the most interesting things about this musical is that it's told in two directions at the same time. With only three players - the woman (Cathy), the man (Jamie) and a piano player only half visible behind a screen - we watch Jamie tell his half of the story from beginning to end and Cathy tell hers from end to beginning. From crash and burn to hope. Folded in together, these two story lines make up an interesting span of emotional geometry. Set in layers, one on top of the other, are expectation, loss, ambition, jealousy, joy, disillusionment. The most poignant and telling moments along the course of this span, as you'd probably expect, are the show's beginning and its heartbreaking end.
Eric Little played flawless piano for ninety minutes straight, and I don't just say flawless because he's my uncle (he's not). Both actors/singers had beautiful voices and strong control. I thought Drew Harper as Jamie was great in his moments of humor and joy. His exuberant singing of "Shiksa Goddess" (just after he's met Cathy for the first time) is charming, and his burst of giggling jubilation when his dream of becoming a novelist comes true is sweet and hilarious. He also floats some beautiful high notes - not to mention he looks good in his underwear.
Merideth Kaye Clark was lovely as that Shiksa Goddess. She has a clear, shimmery voice and strong, versatile acting chops. I wondered if it was any more difficult for Clark to play her emotional journey in reverse. Maybe not - what the heck do I know about acting? - but it seems like there's a naturalness to the forward thrust of the aforementioned from hope to crash and burn. It makes sense. We can all relate. As an actor, is it harder to walk that same path in reverse? There's something hollowed out about Clark's Cathy at the beginning of the show (her end of the story), a weariness to match the loss she's singing about, yet along the ninety minute production, she cranks that story backwards until the Cathy we see at the end (her beginning) is strikingly different - fresh and full of warmth.
There's part of me that wants a novel out of this play, an unpacking of the scenes, to give more context for the changes in Jamie and Cathy's relationship. And there are some clichés in Jason Robert Brown's lyrics (I stand on a precipice / I struggle to keep my balance), and some mixing of metaphors (I stand on a precipice / I struggle to keep my balance / I open myself / I open myself one stitch at a time). But Brown's strength lies in his manipulation of the bigger picture. His imaginative structuring of this five year relationship, a bittersweet carousel turning around the fulcrum of the couple's wedding. How deftly he uses the forward/backward device to layer irony on top of irony in this simple and universal story.
One of the most powerful things to me is what the play seems to say through the placement - or rather, mostly, absence - of the characters within each scene. For most of the show, there is only one actor on stage. The second character is there, but only as someone implied. The cumulative effect of Jamie singing to an invisible Cathy and Cathy singing to an invisible Jamie illustrates the lack of presence, the lack of there-ness, of these characters throughout much of their relationship. How one-sided it all is.
How one-sided we all are. Too often. The Last Five Years is a potent reminder that in order to hold relationships, we have to stop running around in different directions - focused on ourselves, our wants and our ambitions - and simply connect.
The Last Five Years is playing at the Gerding Theater from now through June 22. More information is here.