Review: Walking the Tightrope. 24th STreet Theatre.Written by: The Maestro of Culture
How do you feel about death? How do you talk about it? Do you talk about it? How do you live with death? As one gets older, these questions cease to be philosophical, as more friends, family members and loved ones begin to, inevitably, die. Americans are notorious for strenuously avoiding this subject, as seen by our rabid youth-oriented society and media, and a statistical tendency to shuttle elderly family members off to nursing homes instead of integrating them into our own homes. Basing a family-friendly play on death, specifically for children (6 and older) and adults is a courageous artistic choice, which is the kind of courage 24th STreet Theatre is showing throughout their 15th Anniversary Season. As Executive Director Jay McAdams states: “It’s adult theatre for kids. Or is it kids’ theatre for adults? We think of it as no-nonsense timeless theatre that pushes the envelope and dares to provoke its audience no matter how old they are.” Certainly children as well as adults are confronted by death. Learning that death is an inevitable part of life, and exploring how we live with death are issues that we all share no matter our age.
Walking the Tightrope (by Mike Kenny) tells the story of Granddad Stan and granddaughter Esme, as they both struggle to accept a new life without Grandma Nanna. Esme comes to visit Stan and Nanna every year, but this year Nanna is gone. Stan is enduring terrible grief, so when pressed by Esme, he quickly creates a story of Nanna going off to join the circus. This only pacifies Esme temporarily. As her visit progresses each day it becomes harder and harder for Granddad Stan to maintain his lie. Finally at the end of her stay, Esme has come to her own conclusions, and bluntly asks Stan if Nanna is dead. He admits this truth, and their relationship is instantly strengthened and deepened by sharing their grief and love for Nanna.
While the play is beautifully written, with a rare simplicity and poetic rhythmic repetition of text, the play ends where it should begin. The real story is how we live with death . . . how we live joyfully, bravely, honoring and celebrating those who die. This is a complex and endlessly difficult challenge to which there are no easy answers. Children in 2013 are a very sophisticated and savvy audience, steeped in stories and media that hardly shy away from the subject of death. The work of genius Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and the book & film colossus of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter are just two examples, to say nothing of the Zombie Mania sweeping our nation. The message that playwright Mike Kenny seems to be giving is that adults should not be honest with children about death, but use euphemisms such as Granddad Stan’s “Nanna’s gone off to join the circus,” or “someday I’ll be off to be a cowboy.” This approach in today’s world feels quaint and verging on Victorian, hardly a realistic strategy for engaging today’s youth . . . or today’s adults for that matter.
Artistic Director Debbie Devine states: “Adults will understand and relate to the old man’s profound grief. How do you survive a spouse? How do you go on?” Indeed! Specifically how?! That is the critical challenge and question upon which the play doesn’t focus, instead showing the child Esme asking honest straight-forward questions, and then struggling with her Granddad’s evasive, deflecting, and euphemistic answers. This may be an accurate portrayal of how many families interact with children about the subject of death, but why emphasize the status quo? Why under-estimate the ability of children to be told the truth, in an age-appropriate fashion?
My philosophical disagreement with the script notwithstanding, the production itself is a wonder, with brilliant video design by Matthew G. Hill, a simple yet effective set by Keith Mitchell which not only places us in a small town on the English seacoast in 1959, but simultaneously evokes a circus Big Top. Live piano accompaniment composed and played by Michael Redfield is an integral part of this dream-like world, as is John Zalewski’s incisive, detailed and supportive sound design. Director Debbie Devine confidently tells this story, leading Mark Bramhall (Granddad Stan) and Paige Lindsey White (Esme) to strong, assured performances, with heart-touching moments of nuance. This is excellent theatre: it doesn’t provoke agreement or consensus, but provokes emotions and thought about a timeless subject.
The Saturday matinee performance I attended had home-made tamales in the lobby, and the cheerful, warm energy that the 24th STreet Theatre staff seems to effortlessly embody. This good spirit, along with a passionate production reminded me that we really are all in this together.