A Sense of Understanding
It was the end of the week, and I was so tired I was leaning on my friend's shoulder as we waited for Someone Else's Life to start. I could tell this was going to be a classy production by Conundrum. All the signs were there: the high-quality stock on which the program was printed; the sweet, clear music of Coldplay and Simon and Garfunkel; Biz Schaugaard's impeccable replica of the patio of a mountain-town motel -- flagstone paving, three units with windows and window boxes, even a gift-shop wooden bear waving a paw at us. And under the direction of Jim Hunt, classy it turned out to be, with acting so excellent, subtle and naturalistic it could serve as a model for aspiring young actors.
Scott Gibson's script isn't about action, plot, narrative. There's neither forward drive nor momentum nor conflict, and the characters' tensions are underground. Everything moves very slowly. People chat. Hares of plot are started but not pursued. Every now and then, something spurts up like a guttering candle flame -- a flash of anger, irritation, a hint at a deeper emotion -- and then goes out. Someone Else's Life is about a particular kind of feeling that all of us have had at one time or another: the feeling that we aren't leading the lives we were intended for, a complex nostalgia that encompasses our partners, careers, failures and successes, the things we've always wanted to do and haven't, the way we've mired ourselves in routine and dailiness until we can no longer see a way out. Ann Tyler captured it perfectly in her novel Ladder of Years, in which a long-married woman on a holiday at the beach with her family simply walks away and begins an entirely new life in a nearby town. Having left my home in England at the age of seventeen, I've often felt that somehow, in some alternate reality, I'm still there, living in a London with an English husband and children who call me "Mummy." In the program, Hunt has reprinted the entire text of a fine poem by Mary Oliver that ends, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
The story is anchored by middle-aged motel guests Rose and Alan, who seem reasonably contented, if mildly irritated with each other. Rose dabbles. She writes and sketches because, as Alan eventually explains, "She wants so much to be more than she is." What Alan wants, however, is to hear Rose say she loves him, and she won't because she finds his request bullying. There's also a pair of brothers staying at the motel, in town for their sister's wedding: the obstreperous Matthew, who would be charming if he weren't so in love with himself, and his insecure older brother, Daniel. Then Amy hobbles on, wearing a filmy dress and high heels. She's an escapee from another wedding -- that of her own too-loved-and-too-cute younger sister. These people talk in twos and threes; wine is sipped and confidences shared and withheld. And by the end, nothing much has happened.
The significance is all in the texture and the subtext. Amy is about to go and wants to leave a note for Rose, who loaned her some clothes. She sits at a table, writing on a postcard, which she then carries to Rose and Alan's door. She tries to slide the card into the crack at the side, but it won't go. Her attempt to push it under the door is equally futile. She thinks. She retrieves a smooth stone from the edge of the patio, returns to the door, backs up to it and assesses the path in front. Then she sets the card precisely where she thinks Rose will see it, and anchors it with the rock. All in complete silence. Among Method actors, it's an article of faith that someone doing something real on a stage is fascinating purely and simply because of the action's reality. This sequence both displays tremendous skill and confidence on the part of playwright Gibson, Hunt and actress Susan Scott, and tests that Method premise to the limit.
And although Matthew barges in and drives Amy to fury by trying to see the message, we never do find out what's written on the card.
While I admired the technique, it sometimes made me so restless that I wanted to scream at one of the characters, "For God's sake, do something!" My mood changed with my energy level after intermission, however, and I found myself absorbed -- the way you are when you're sitting on a sunny porch watching sparrows peck under the feeder, watching starlings chasing them away, the sparrows regrouping, a squirrel nibbling warily on the periphery. All of the performances are empathetic, and you sense the actors' own dreams and memories sifting beneath the surface. So even if Jake Mechling's Daniel is so dour you want to shake him, and Alan, calmly played by John Samson, annoyingly chatty, and Matthew -- an occasionally too self-conscious Jono Waldman -- over the top, and Scott's Amy inexplicably irritable, you still rather like them. And Susan D'Autremont, playing Rose, is perfection here, as always.
And in the end, it's okay not knowing what's on the postcard or why Matthew is suddenly desperate to apologize to Amy or why Rose can't tell Alan she loves him, because you sort of understand -- and isn't that about the best you can do when it comes to the shrouded intricacies of the human heart?
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