LULLABY: Regional Review

Arthur DormanTalkin' Broadway

January 22, 2016

Lullaby, billed as a play with music, is a brand new work written by Michael Elyanow and developed by Theater Latté Da as part of their Next 20/20 initiative. Lullaby had a developmental staging last season and was swiftly shepherded to its current full production at the Ritz Theater. The result: Lullaby is a deeply moving work. Its characters feel like real people with relationships and emotions that ring true. It is directed seamlessly by Jeremy B. Cohen who draws terrific performances from his four actors. On the down side, the tale Elyanow tells strains credibility at times. Things occur that seem implausible, in spite of authentic characters and feelings.

At the center of Lullaby is Cassie, a young mother who has been unable to sleep since her husband Craig died six months before. With their two-year-old son, she has moved back to her childhood home near Boston. Craig appears as a character seen and heard only by Cassie, who knows her visions of him are illusions, yet cannot keep herself from engaging with them. Cassie's father Gabriel is a super-supportive dad and grandpa, while working as a professor of film studies and tending to Cassie's mom, an alcoholic in residential treatment. The fourth character is Thea, a past-her-peak musician and co-owner of a club she describes as "a dyke bar," though she has been told the term is politically incorrect. Thea is recovering from a recent break up with her partner of 18 years.

Craig was a musician who, in life, serenaded his infant son with lullabies. In Cassie's visions he still does. She believes that if she learns to play guitar she will bring music back to their son, and in turn Craig's haunting presence will cease and she will be able to sleep. Cassie wanders into Thea's bar for a drink and, after an initial period of hostility, Thea becomes both Cassie's guitar teacher and best friend.

The plot points in the last sentence feel highly unlikely, even illogical. In their first meeting, Cassie is so obtuse and Thea so curt that it is hard to imagine either one giving the other a second thought. Cassie knows she is in a lesbian bar, yet is surprised that Thea interprets her entreaties as a come-on. Once Cassie makes her intentions clear, Thea insists that she is not a teacher, yet Cassie implores Thea to teach her because her previous instructors were men who couldn't keep their hands off her. Why had Cassie not tried to find a qualified female guitar teacher? Surely they exist in the Boston area. And why do neither Cassie nor Thea have any other friends? Yes, they both have been through severe traumas, but those don't have to have left them bereft of any other friends or sources of support.

These are ways in which the plot feels contrived, moving forward because it was written to, not because that's how lives are lived. Yet, the script's sensitivity to these characters' feelings and the strong performances manage to overcome the gap in credibility and generate concern for Cassie, and also Thea. Lullaby goes on to reveal the personal crisis that precipitated Thea's break-up, painful particulars of Craig's death, and the long-standing conflict between Cassie and her dysfunctional mother, with Gabriel trying to broker an accord between them. That's a lot of angst to wade through in one ninety-minute show, and it is to the playwright's credit that we maintain interest in Cassie, Thea, and Gabriel and hope for their happiness. It helps that all three are likeable characters, especially as played, respectively, by Adelin Phelps, Annie Enneking and James Eckhouse.

Phelps portrays Cassie as a young woman who has struggled to be in control of her life in response to the dysfunction brought on by her mother's alcoholism and Craig's illness. She has spiraled into insomnia, desperate to avoid the fall that lies just ahead. Phelps makes Cassie bright and perky, but also tired and frightened as she tries to generate enough go-power to stave off the forces of loss and guilt. It is a complex performance that is one of the main reasons we believe in Lullaby even when we don't believe its story.

Another reason we believe in Lullaby is Annie Enneking's equally striking performance as Thea. She presents Thea as thick-skinned and self-sufficient, slowly peeling away her outer skin to reveal softness and compassion within. She is a survivor who wants more than to just survive. She is also terrifically funny, and lands the numerous laugh-lines playwright Elyanow has provided. Her throaty, weary sounding voice is perfect for the songs Thea sings as she strives to keep music at the center of her turned-over life.

James Eckhouse is likeable and believable as Gabriel, a gentle and nurturing academic, faithful, if perhaps a bit too enabling, to his manipulating wife and drawing forth all the support he can muster for his beleaguered daughter. Because we believe so much in his goodness, his eruption when finally squeezed too tightly between his wife and daughter is also palpable. David Darrow, a frequent member of Theater Latté Da casts, plays Craig, who is beyond suffering, and his relaxed and easy disposition as he haunts Cassie with his presence only adds to her pain, especially in contrast to hardships he suffered (seen in a flashback) in life.

Lullaby is staged on a wonderfully wrought set designed by Geoffrey Curly that uses the full width of the Ritz Theater's stage, with the wood-grained, bookish foyer and living room of Cassie's childhood home on one side, and Thea's battered and rough-edged bar on the other. Paul Whitaker's lighting design guides us smoothly between the playing areas, and illuminates the shifts in Cassie's focus between searching inwardly and reaching outward.

As for the music, we hear songs sung by Thea on stage at her bar or in the course of Cassie's guitar lessons, and by Craig as he coaxes Cassie to remember music they shared together, and with their son. The songs, contributed by Garrison Starr, Chris Dallman, Curt Schneider, and Michael Elyanow, are in a country-folk vein. They do not reveal character or advance the plot, but are part of the atmosphere, adding to the longing for release at the heart of the play. None of the songs are truly memorable, though "Heart Collector" can be understood as Thea's own warning to protect her heart from future hurts, and "Gasoline" catches the drunken spirit of feeling good about feeling bad.

Lullaby contains a lot of very good work—strong direction, beautiful stage design, and excellent performances—that in combination stir up deep feelings. The emotional journey is depicted with enough conviction to make the outcome truly gratifying. And yet ... It would be even better if all of this were built upon a story that rang true.

Lullaby is worth seeing for all that it offers, especially in this very fine production. If future iterations can knit together the gaps in its plot, this emotionally rewarding work has the potential to become a truly masterful play.

Lullaby continues through February 7, 2016, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $35.00. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterLatté

Written by: Michael Elyanow; Music and Lyrics: Garrison Starr, Chris Dallman, Curt Schneider and Michael Elyanow; Director: Jeremy B. Cohen; Assistant Director: Benjamin French; Music Director/Sound Engineer: Peter Morrow; Set Design: Geoffrey Curly; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Properties Mistress: Amy J. Reddy; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg; Production Manager: Dylan Wright; Stage Manager: Lisa M. Smith.

Cast: David Darrow (Craig), James Eckhouse (Gabriel), Annie Enneking (Thea), Adelin Phelps (Cassie).