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Editorial Review

At the Lansburgh, an ambitious meditation on change and loss

By Celia Wren
Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011

All is flux, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed. A couple of thousand years later, a theater-and-dance piece is saying the same thing - but less succinctly, and with an accompanying supply of sentiment and rocks.

The rocks litter the wistful beachscape that is the dreamlike setting for "Stay," a brave but unsatisfying meditation on loss, yearning and impermanence making its world premiere at the Lansburgh Theatre. Conceived by playwright Heather McDonald and choreographer Susan Shields, and written and directed by McDonald, this ambitious 90-minute piece attempts to speak in a new and meaningful way about some of the most basic and oft-noted truths of human experience: that change is constant and usually difficult, and that happiness, and even satisfaction, can be fleeting. Unfortunately, "Stay" - produced by Theater of the First Amendment - tackles these issues so explicitly and emphatically that the show often feels clunky and mawkish.

That's the case even though McDonald and Shields (who choreographed the piece) eschew overarching story line in favor of diffuse poetic images and unrooted bursts of bittersweet dialogue. On a stage furnished with driftwood, abandoned suitcases and a low stone wall (James Kronzer is scenic designer), men and women with little discernible back story handle nautilus shells, or toy with smooth white rocks, or exchange remarks on subjects as varied as shattered romance, Fibonacci numbers, the inefficacy of words and the New Testament parable of the prodigal son. In one unfortunate scene, a character quotes from the Fleetwood Mac song "Landslide" - driving home the production's life-is-transience message with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Underscoring the key theme in another way are the piece's dance sequences - stretches of choreography that are less interesting and less powerful than they might be, because they correlate so obviously with the experience of longing. Dancers whirl in delicate bemusement, or stretch their arms out in gestures of unfulfilled craving, or drape themselves against partners in poignant pas de deux. (Howard Vincent Kurtz designed the show's casual-wear costumes.) One longs for movement that would strike a different, or more nuanced, note.

As with the dance, a mood of aching wonderment infuses the projections that sometimes bathe the back of the stage: images of light gleaming through trees, or hands writing in a journal and then tearing up the pages. Meanwhile, throughout the show, the strains of quasi-minimalist music, or the sound of the ocean, swell through the theater, shoehorning you into a pensive frame of mind, in case you weren't there already.

"Stay" occasionally grounds its elegiac musings in humor, aided by a cast of fine actors, including John Lescault and James Whalen. Carolyn Swift offers welcome comic relief as Pheeny, who likes to invent long German-sounding words "to express the inexpressible." Naomi Jacobson brings some levelheadedness to Eilean, who says things such as "Is nothing immutable?" And Michael Willis is enjoyably eccentric as Hymn, a guy whose idea of barroom chitchat is wondering whether Mary, Queen of Scots, was a witness to Jesus's resurrection.

These glimpses of personality notwithstanding, the characters often feel like devices, without the solidity and narrative grounding that might make the play's themes live theatrically. Like the pointillist images (the scarf falling from the sky, the people spinning like tops), the snippets of conversation in "Stay" fail to move McDonald and Shields's existential concerns much beyond a state of broody abstraction. And abstractions are hard to care about.

Blurring the lines of artistic genres

By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Nov. 11, 2011

If only we could stall the steady march of time - press pause during a moment of pure joy, keep the kids 5 years old forever, stop parents from aging. That wistful spirit permeates Theater of the First Amendment's new production, "Stay," which marks the first collaboration between Pulitzer-nominated playwright-director Heather McDonald and dancer-turned-choreographer Susan Shields.

"At first we started talking thematically about impermanence," McDonald says, "and when you want people or things to just stay the way they are but they never do, of course."

Yet for a work all about hanging onto the present, the show marks a departure from anything the two have done. "Stay" is the type of impossible-to-define production that bleeds from one genre to another. It features both actors and dancers, sweeping through a detritus-laden stage ("It's this weird island with things that have washed in," McDonald says) in front of Gregory Crane's massive projected animations of nautilus shells and flashing lights. Even the story is unconventional; McDonald compares the unfolding action to a series of photographs, vignettes about marriage and death, addiction and familial bonds.

"It sounds corny, but it's like a poetic journey," Shields says. "I feel like you have to come and suspend disbelief a bit because it's not a linear play by any stretch."

What the production lacks in a narrative thread, it makes up for with a strong sense of emotionally charged nostalgia.

"That theme of how loss defines us and what people hold onto to make sense of things in life, that does kind of haunt me," McDonald says.

The collaborators - both professors at George Mason University - describe meeting each other as an artistic love at first sight, in which the pair bonded over similarities in age, being working mothers and overcoming past misfortunes. They knew they wanted to work together almost immediately, but producing this multi-sensory mash-up of drama and comedy was still an intimidating venture.

"[Shields] can't really create except in the room with dancers; she writes on their bodies," McDonald says. "What she really didn't want me to do was write a play ahead of time, and then she would come in and choreograph it. So it really took this huge leap . . . I thought, 'What if nothing comes?' "

That meant McDonald had the unorthodox task of recruiting a cast without a script.

"The actors are all people I've worked with many times," she says. "Otherwise I don't think I would have had the nerve to ask them: 'Come and do this; I don't know what we're doing yet, but it might be fun.' "

Luckily, both women had an impressive list of contacts. Among the talented cast is Helen Hayes Award winner Naomi Jacobson, Washington Ballet standout Laura Urgelles, local stage veteran John Lescault and Scott Rink, erstwhile principal dancer with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company.

The piece was workshopped before an audience in January, and reactions were highly personal. While some responded to the marriage woes, others identified with the story of the troubled daughter.

"But then I had people come up to me and say things like, 'I loved the scene about the grandfather,' and I'm like, 'Wow, there's no scene in the play about a grandfather,' " McDonald says. "It came out that they attached to something in it, some character, something, and then it's almost like they imagined more than was even there."

Maybe that's a testament to the universality of the human desire to control the uncontrollable. It all reminds Shields of a long-ago conversation she had with Lubovitch, who offered up some words of wisdom when the dancer was 23 and distraught over a big breakup.

"He comforted me with these words that I've never forgotten," Shields says. "He said, 'Someday you're going to see the beauty in pain,' and that's been with me throughout this . . . because, frankly, it's the only way you can survive."