Sometimes you show up to the theater and really have no idea what you're in for. I came in expecting some sort of monologue by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge. What I got was two deeply moving pieces about love, family, and death.
This piece was broken up into two short acts. The first was Tom Sturridge performing as Alex in Sea Wall.
It started unlike anything I've seen before. Alex came out on stage and started drinking a beer and fiddling with lights. When the audience quickly silenced themselves, Alex told us the show wasn't starting yet and he kept wandering around the stage. We were left to wonder, is this an actor, a stage hand, or just some dude who broke into the theater.
Eventually, Alex hits a light and we quickly realize that he's the performer. He opens by talking about a man. He describes this man's personality and life in incredible detail without telling us who he is or how he knows him.
I thought this particular bit of writing was brilliant. He speaks as though we're already aware of who he's talking about, but when he finally shares it it feels like we're learning a secret. He does this just by mentioning the man's name, and eventually his relation to him as though we already know. He does this again with a woman, and later a child; this is his family.
Watching this felt like being a part of someone else's therapy. This character is telling us about the brightest and darkest moments in his life. The audience can sense that we're waiting for something significant to happen, and of course it does (no spoilers).
Shortly after, Alex walks off stage and leaves us all with a heavy heart.
The intermission gives us a chance to reflect on what just unfolded in front of us. When Jake Gyllenhaal walks on stage for A Life, we feel like we know what to expect, we don't.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Abe, another man with a deeply personal story. This story starts with Abe's sick father, and is juxtaposed with the birth of his daughter. Abe interweaves his stories and forces the audience to make the jump when he switches.
These stories are again deeply personal but in a different way. Abe's story almost picks up where Alex's left off. When Abe comes out and tells us his father had tingling in his har, we immediately know he's going to die. The only surprise is how long it takes.
Eventually Abe mentions his wife is pregnant and starts comparing the secrets surrounding pregnancy to the secrets surrounding illness. We see the same scenes, sharing the news, driving to the hospital, and dealing with doctors from two entirely different vantage points.
One line from this monologue resonated with me more than any other. It was a quote by David M. Eagleman.
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
That third death is the one that struck me the hardest.
In the Jewish culture and faith, we make a point to only name our children after people who have already died, never the living. When Abe spoke these words I immediately thought of this.
Naming our children after the deceased is a way to prevent this third death, a sort of immortality. This however was my projection, the child in the play is not named after the grandparent, but this was such an important message to me, it stuck.
Normally when I review productions I like to give them a proper rating. I'll talk about things like the set, costumes, acting, music, and anything else that might be relevant.
In this case all we have is the writing of the two pieces and the actors who brought them to life. Sure there was brilliant directing and a stripped down set design, but overall this show is driven by it's raw content and nothing else.
With that said I want to give this show a ten for writing and a ten for delivery. This was a very special piece of theater that will likely only exist at the Public, but I'm grateful to have seen it.
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