This Is Us is one of those television shows that catches fire and becomes a kind of cultural meme. On Facebook, you’re likely to read a discussion of plot points, speculation on what’s to come (how did Jack die?), or a description of the evening that a friend has planned curled up on the sofa with a plentiful supply of Kleenex. I have to admit I’ve been part of this legion of fans, though sans Kleenex and only intermittently: While the cast is terrific and the plot and dialogue appealing, every now and then an episode is just too trite and sentimental to swallow. Still, I was delighted and impressed when I heard that the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company had snagged a play by This Is Us writer-producer Bekah Brunstetter for a regional premiere: Going to a Place Where You Already Are. Unfortunately, the tone makes it feel as if Brunstetter has already been here, taking the soggy bits of This Is Us, macerating them in sugar syrup, then serving them up as a new script.
The action begins promisingly with an older couple, Joe and Roberta, seated in church, whispering and joking like teenagers at the back of class as the pastor delivers an unctuous eulogy for a woman Joe knows only from work and his wife not at all. They’re particularly amused by a semi-literate speech delivered by the woman’s great-grandson, who says, “It’s important to talk to your elders and get wisdom from them and stuff, and also now I get her accordion.” Joe (Jim Hunt) is a didactic atheist, but Roberta (Anne Sandoe) finds herself unexpectedly moved by a hymn she used to sing as a child. Where is the dead woman going, she wonders. The cemetery, responds Joe coolly. This scene, searching, sharp and funny, turns out to be the best part of the evening.
Not long afterward, Roberta has an out-of-body experience in which she’s introduced to the afterlife by an inexplicably affectionate angel. She also discovers that a painful backache she’d attributed to pulling up dandelions is in fact a widely metastasized cancer.
Then there’s a younger couple, who we eventually realize are Ellie (Anastasia Davidson), Joe’s granddaughter, and Jonas (Trenton Schindele), a wheelchair-bound man with whom she’s just spent the night. Ellie is twitchy, angry, tied to her work and her phone, and absolutely sure she doesn’t want an ongoing relationship. Jonas is patient and persistent, though it’s hard to see why.
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Neither couple feels remotely real. Furious that Roberta is refusing drastic treatment for her illness, Joe does everything he can to tear apart her comforting vision. I don’t remember hearing what kind of work he does (this lack of specific detail is distracting throughout), but he lectures his dying wife like a pompous law professor. Though a health crisis can bring out the worst in families, Joe’s hectoring seems less like anger fueled by grief than plain nastiness.
Besides, it’s impossible to believe that Roberta is dying. This is always difficult territory, and perhaps the heart-shriveling illness scenes in such plays as Margaret Edson’s Wit, the vomit and writhing pain, aren’t appropriate here. But Brunstetter gives Roberta none of the depth, insight, terror and vulnerability you’d expect from any thoughtful human facing mortality. And Sandoe, slim, lithe and clear-voiced, never appears ill. Under director Rebecca Remaly, the cast is uniformly decent, but Sandoe, an experienced actor who knows how to hold a stage, doesn’t have the warmth to rescue her ill-written character, and there’s a bit too much ungrounded shouting by the others.
Roberta may be strengthened by her newfound certainty of an afterlife, but the vision of this afterlife is shallow and childish: easy and instant reunion with those we’ve lost, along with lots of junk food and ice cream. A scene with Roberta’s angel, played by James O’Hagan Murphy, contains stage directions like this: “She hands him her cone. He takes a giant happy lick.” No matter how strongly you believe, surely the terror of death can’t be assuaged by ice cream and chocolate sauce.
Going to a Place Where You Already Are, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Collective through May 6, Dairy Arts Center, 303-444-7328, betc.org.