Dearly Departed

While pure lighthearted entertainment is fine from time to time, I freely admit to preferring art, whether on stage, screen, page, or canvas. If someone were to pin me down and demand a definition of art -- a term so often abused -- I would state that it is simply a creative work done by an individual that speaks to the souls of many, that reaches inside us and touches upon some great truth in the human condition. It does this simply, and without artifice. In its presence, we are changed by the experience and release profound emotion.

In other words, The Terminator-type movies are pure entertainment. Michael Brady's brilliant play, To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday, currently enjoying an exquisite, subtle, and heart-wrenching production at New Theatre, is Art. See it, and you'll understand what criteria I employ to define the term.

But first a warning: Bring your handkerchiefs. This work doesn't provoke cheap weeping, as did E.T. Brady's tale of a youngish widower unable to accept the death of his wife, his soul mate, brings forth that deep-burning-in-the-throat sorrow that lasts long into the night. Anyone who has ever experienced an irreconcilable loss of any kind can find kinship in Brady's characters. His dialogue is wise and poetic yet authentic, his plot completely plausible. For all these reasons, we can hold hands with the author, jump into his reality and give ourselves over completely to his story.

David, a supercerebral English professor, lost his wife Gillian in an awful boating accident two years ago. More than a wife, Gillian was a Goddess-like woman, a great scientist, a lusty wench, larger than life. Equally devastated by her loss are her teenage daughter Rachel, and her therapist sister Esther. But Esther uses humor to cover her pain and Rachel tries to console her father to help them both mend the wounds. David, however, seems incapable of moving on. Instead, he speaks only to two people: Cindy, an adolescent girl with a crush on him, who demands nothing; and the ghost of Gillian, with whom he relives on the beach the greatest moments of their marriage, every night, within his own tormented mind.

The play takes place over the course of one weekend, when Esther and her genial husband Paul conspire with Rachel to bring Kevin -- a female ex-student of David who is looking for a husband -- up to the beach house. They are not subtle about this matchmaking maneuver, either. Everyone believes that what David needs is another relationship, to force him out of the house and off the beach, back to work and back to life. Everyone, of course, except David.

If Gillian's ghost came back simply to release him, as in such movies as Ghost or Truly, Madly, Deeply, the play would be somewhat predictable and to that extent, disappointing. But Brady is a fine writer, and he weaves a work that unfolds on many levels. There is more to David and Gillian's relationship than anyone knows, Esther turns out to be a surprisingly complex character, and there is no happily-ever-after at the end. There is simply a turn for the better. As in real life.

In a radio interview I recently conducted with Michael Brady, who flew down from Massachusetts to see this version of his 1984 off-Broadway success, he said that he was very pleased with the South Florida production. And well he should be. Rafael de Acha is fast emerging as the single finest director in our region, a man able to take a small black-box space and transform it into another world, to move people around the stage seamlessly, and most of all, to draw superb work from his actors.

In the cast, three woman stand out in award-caliber performances. Kimberly Daniel as Esther displays the range of comic and dramatic talent seen in a Robin Williams or a Billy Crystal. Her honesty and immersion in this role are the best I have ever seen from her; in fact, no one could do a better job. Maggie Baisch, a high school student at New World School of the Arts, does a similarly outstanding job as Cindy, the teenager with raging hormones who worships David. Both Daniel and Baisch (Baisch all the more remarkable for her tender age) display varying levels of subtext, complex emotions that change from moment to moment, but never ring false.

However, this production in many ways belongs to Lisa Friedman as the long-dead Gillian. This role demands an outstanding presence, a riveting sexuality, and an electrically charged charisma in the actress, as well as layers of sensitivity. We must see how huge and tragic Michael's loss truly is. We hear so much about the extraordinary Gillian before her ghost ever appears, that Friedman faces an enormous task. And yet she transcends it. In fact, there is a moment at the end of the first act when, on the night I attended, there were few dry eyes in the house (critics included) and it is Friedman who evoked that reaction. She makes us fall in love with Gillian, and so we, like David, crave her back among the living.

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