Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions presents their inaugural production, the poignant drama To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, by Michael Brady. Aly Ettman directs this story about grief, and how much control we actually have over its effect on our lives and relationships.
Set Designer Bob Chaves uses stripped, white-washed wood to create the deck and entrance to a New England beach house, with painted dunes set against an ocean backdrop in the background. Chaves also shares credit for the sound design with Carol Spring, and they complement the setting with the presence of waves and seagulls. Lighting Designer Peter Caress uses soft blues for the majority of the production and creates the effect of moonlight reflecting off of the ocean. Flashes and color changes are also used to help portray flashbacks, as well as spiritual encounters. Costume Coordinators Charlene Sloan and Angela Pirko use casual summer and beach wear to complete the atmosphere.
Two years after the tragic death of his wife Gillian (Meredith Fogle), former English professor David (Thomas McGrath) continues to withdraw from the world, and particularly from his teenage daughter Rachel (Anna Fagan). He spends hours seemingly alone on the beach, when in reality he is having vivid encounters with his wife’s spirit (a fact that is not lost on his worried and perceptive daughter). During a summertime visit, his sister-in-law Esther (Sue Schaffel) and her husband Paul (Bob Chaves) set out to see if they can coax David back into the company of the living by bringing along one of his ex-students, Kevin (Ashley San) in an attempt to set them up. However, they could not have picked a worse time, as this weekend happens to be his wife’s birthday…as well as the anniversary of her death. David grapples with tensions between himself and his family members, as well as the spirit of his wife, Gillian, who encourages him to move on as well. Will the jolt of their visit influence David to rejoin the world, or will he lose the only relationships he has left in his preference for a spiritual one?
It was unfortunate that during my performance several of the actors had difficulty delivering their lines. There were, however, two powerful scenes that really moved me – a confrontation between David and Esther where she threatens to take a neglected Rachel back with her to the city, and an emotional conversation between Kevin and Rachel about her deceased mother and heartbroken, distant father.
There are wonderful performances by Ashley San (although her youthfulness at times makes her look decades younger than her character, looking more like a sister or friend to David’s teenage daughter instead of a motherly-figure. It’s awkward when she is reciting lines like, “When I was your age, long ago…”) and Sue Schaffel who steals scenes as the brusque Esther. Schaeffel provides some much-needed comedic relief with her witty demeanor.
If you enjoy a drama filled with emotion, then you will find To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday a powerful evening in the theatre. It questions the strength of human connection, and is quite thought-provoking.
Running time is Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday plays through November 17, 2012 at Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions at Theatre on the Run – 3700 Four Mile Run Drive, in Arlington, VA. Purchase tickets at the door or online.
Read “Peter’s Alley Theatre Productions: A New Theater Voice Arrives in DC.”