For a touchy-feely play written at the beginning of America's politically correct modern age, Michael Brady's To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday is surprisingly humorous, delightfully risque and impishly entertaining. The romantic drama about a strong-willed widower's long-running bout with mourning sickness is being presented by the Morrison Theatre in the hospitable confines of the Morrison Town Hall. Although a couple of performers are less than ideally cast--a situation that can sometimes lend a community theater its greatest strength--director Rick Bernstein and his exuberant ensemble artfully communicate the dramatist's heartfelt message.
In fact, the local production boasts a pair of outstanding portrayals by two promising young actresses whose collective talent, stage presence and beyond-their-years insight more than offset the show's minor faults. Leading the company is Arvada West High School senior Amanda Brodjeski, who delivers a fully realized portrait of the teenaged Rachel, an adventuring type who wants nothing more than to see her grief-stricken father, David (Arthur Payton), stop talking to the ghost of her mother and his wife, Gillian (Carolyn Valentine). Combining playful precociousness with irksome candor, Brodjeski perfectly conveys the depth of Rachel's frustration with her father's morose musings when she blurts out, "I just want things to be normal." As David tries to convince Rachel that his late-night rants to Gillian are a natural by-product of his "misapplied anguish," Brodjeski earns good-natured laughter from theatergoers when she drily remarks, "I think it's time you started talking to real women again." A few scenes later, Brodjeski invests Rachel's gut-wrenching confession of survivor's guilt with a sublime, uncluttered honesty that would be the envy of most seasoned professionals.
Wonderfully complementing Brodjeski's delicately shaded teen is Megan Saxon's full-bodied Cindy, a comely teenage vixen who's both Rachel's best friend and David's too-admiring jogging partner. An experienced dancer and budding choreographer, Saxon has little difficulty exuding Cindy's irrepressible charm and pert sexuality. But while it would be easy for Saxon to evoke cheap laughter by exaggerating her character's boundless sensuality, that never happens. Instead Saxon renders a portrait of a confused young woman who, because of her mature physicality, is continually forced to rein in her understandably adolescent urges. It's an innovative choice that defuses a few sexually suggestive barbs that Cindy trades with Rachel's over-the-hill uncle, Paul (Wade Livingston), and lends weight and texture to Cindy's starry-eyed, flirtatious relationship with the amiable David.
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However, in addition to a few unfortunate staging problems, Bernstein's choice to cast an older actor in the part of David considerably alters the play's scope. Initially, it's interesting to witness a fifty-something David--whose cerebral nature Gillian good-naturedly skewers by calling him "Mr. PBS"--struggle with the prospect of rebuilding his emotional life. Given prevailing social mores about fitness and romance, it's certainly refreshing to see a Nineties take on an age-old theme. At times, though, you get the feeling that David's problem isn't with unresolved grief but with his inability to mature gracefully. After all, he married Gillian when she was twenty (which, in this case, makes David some ten or fifteen years her senior), and there's David's arguably unhealthy interest in Cindy. Plus, David's subsequent relationship with a former female student, Kevin (Kristin Erickson), makes you wonder whether the graying patriarch isn't in search of his own (albeit warped) version of the fountain of youth. Not for nothing did the 1996 film adaptation of Brady's play feature the robust Peter Gallagher in the pivotal role: A younger David's inability to move forward with his life somehow contains more tragic implications than an older man's discerning choice to curtail or rekindle romantic pursuits.
That said, Payton delivers an astute portrayal that's a model of rediscovered faith. As he navigates between flashback scenes that serve as the characters' only acknowledgment of Gillian's presence ("What's life?" implores David during one pointed exchange. "A magazine," Gillian retorts mischievously) and extended episodes in which his character wrestles with the agonizing decision to affirm his loss, the veteran actor is always convincing. And as the play swells to its poignant conclusion, Payton adroitly permits us a glimpse of David's renewed passion for the one aspect of his life that will matter above all else when he decides to rejoin the human race: his all-important love of self.
The enjoyable two-hour production also features the yeoman efforts of a solid supporting cast. Livingston imbues his Hawaiian-shirted, none-of-this-sensitive-guy-stuff, assimilated beatnik with an appropriate mixture of comic bravado and avuncular understanding. As his wife (and Gillian's sister), Esther, Chris Bernstein invests her portrayal of the headband-wearing, fitness-conscious therapy advocate with both matronly concern and tough-as-nails determination. And even though Erickson's soft-spoken Kevin is less the ravishing sort than perhaps the playwright intends, the able actress nonetheless manages to craft a sympathetic portrait that's in keeping with director Bernstein's spiritually inclined approach. In the end, despite Paul's disturbingly accurate claim that we're more or less "a nation of wimps and crybabies," Gillian makes for a gentle, provocative play about the timeless and unavoidable themes of loss and acceptance.
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, presented by the Morrison Theatre through December 13 at the Morrison Town Hall, 110 Stone Street, Morrison, 303-697-0620.