Friday, May 25, 2012

M&D's 'To Gillian' offers honest, heartfelt laughs and tears

Some shows grab you instantly while others sneak up on you and slowly take hold. M&D Productions' "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," which opened Thursday, May 24, and is playing Thursday through Saturday until June 9, is the latter. It is a show that, rather unexpectedly, envelopes you in its characters, emotions and story.

"To Gillian" focuses on the weekend gathering of friends and family on both the birthday and anniversary of the death of Gillian (Lisa Fida), who died two years earlier. Her husband David (Scott Katrycz) is still in deep mourning. He has removed himself from life and resides year round at an island beach house. Every night he talks to Gillian's ghost or, more likely, his memories and his own tortured subconscious.

David's 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Jessie Biggio), his sister-in-law Esther (Janette Kondrat) and Esther's husband Paul (Rob Clark) are concerned for David and attempt to set him up with Kevin (Bethany Taylor), one of David's former college students. Also in the mix is Cindy (Ellen Hill) , David's 16-year-old running partner, with whom has a chaste relationship with even though she has a bit of a crush on him.

As playwright Michael Brady's script sets the plot in motion it seems a bit forced and even clunky. Initially, it seems like the show will be comprised of nothing more than one liners paired with a shallow exploration of grieving, but then the story and the character interactions become deeper and more complex. The dialogue becomes more authentic and begins grappling with real emotions.

Characters that started out as one dimensional are given more shading and depth through conversations that are bare and, often, painful. David is unable to see past his own grief and his family is finally calling him out on that. As the play progresses we begin to see characters heal and actually talk and listen to each other perhaps for the first time since the tragic accident that killed Gillian.

The strong cast brings this conflict, which has both laughs and tears and ranges from heartbreaking to heartwarming, across beautifully. Director Christina Howe manages to get performances that feel honest from the entire cast.

Katrycz believably portrays David's grief and his struggle to reconnect with the world, his daughter and to allow himself to, perhaps, find love again. It is a well balanced and controlled performance that never feels maudlin. His scenes with Fida have a melancholy sweetness in the first act that changes in a shocking way in the second act which puts a different color to the whole show.

Biggio, who was excellent in M&D's "Diary of Anne Frank" last year, continues to impress. She has a natural, easy stage presence and gives an expressive, genuine performance. Her emotions feel real. Biggio and Katrycz create a tangible father/daughter connection.

Kondrat gives a forceful performance as woman that has always been the rock of her family who can no longer keep her emotions in. She is particularly strong in an intense confrontation with Katrycz towards the end of the first act that raises the emotional stakes of the entire show.

Clark is the comic relief character of the production. Adorned with bright, garish outfits, he gets a laugh every time he walks on stage. He kills with a joke involving a priest, a man with no arms and a bell. But even Clark gets to show a tender, supportive side toward the end of the show.

Taylor is a bit one note in her performance, but has good chemistry with both Katrycz and Biggio and develops interesting relationships with them. Her character is meant to be a listener and a catalyst for change and Taylor does a nice job of coming across as a caring, compassionate ear.

Hill is given the task of playing a smart, sarcastic, but also hormonally confused teenager. Although some of her line readings are a bit stilted, she is quite good with sardonic one-liners and captures the angst of being a teen nicely.

It goes without saying, but I'll say it again, that Deborah Jasien's set design, this time a beach house with actual sand, is stellar.

This is a show that has dark, even depressing moments, but finds a happy ending that isn't a cheat and that is actually earned. This is a show that is emotionally satisfying and well worth seeing.

For more information or tickets call the box office at 662-7591.

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