Passage of Dreams at the Southern is uncommonly graceful: Piece ebbs and flows between commonplace and transcendent

March 25, 2009.By Quinton Skinner, City Pages.

Our lives might feel riddled with mundane fusses and miscues, but looked at from the proper angle they are nothing if not oceanic. Tides of feeling, swells of cognition, and the inky depths that elude understanding: of this are we made. So one concludes, anyhow, after Passage of Dreams, a deeply evocative piece that ebbs and flows between the commonplace and the transcendent with uncommon grace.

This premiere is presented as three short musical pieces (with two intermissions), with book and music by Katie Baldwin Eng and music by Jeff Tang. From the onset, in the half-hour fragment from which the evening's title is derived, we get a sense of appealingly youthful romance. A street flower vendor (Simone Perrin) feels her heart go bippety-bop for Jean (Randy Schmeling), while both sense the spectral pull of Francoise (Emily Gunyou Halaas on a platform high above the stage, striking self-consciously dramatic poses while conveying genuine yearning).

Denise Prosek leads a four-piece orchestra (piano, strings, guitar) in a delicate and precise performance of Tang's music, with Eng's lyrics pushing the narrative along while stopping to luxuriate in moments of reflection. Our characters pine for love's escape, push against the bounds of romantic identity and convention, and ultimately yearn for the transport of the night, of dreams, because "in life you die."

The currents run deep, in other words, though the middle piece, "Bessie's Birthday," grounds itself first with worldly firmness. Delphine (Halaas), a big-city quasi-bad girl, returns home to Wisconsin with new hipster boyfriend Max (Schmeling) in tow. The occasion is the birthday of Delphine's sister Bessie (Perrin), who, it turns out, suffered a seizure and oxygen loss that has left her perpetually with the mind of a child.

Before long, we feel as though the piece might have packed too much into its confines, that it's a longer work of musical theater crammed into a limited time slot, yet it undeniably works. We follow one narrative thread after another, from the firecracker-tossing neighbor Jack (Fred J. Wagner) delivering a hilarious tune with spouse, Grace (Sally Ann Wright), on his fixation with the younger girls' breasts, to Max's shedding his vegetarianism and going native with Delphine's father, Sam (Garry Geiken).

Credit here must go to director Peter Rothstein, whose chops both theatrical and musical are in abundant evidence.

"Bessie's Birthday" somehow sprawls across a short span of time, juggling multiple notions of love (youthful, jaded, impossible) with crosscurrents of culture clash, Midwestern angst, and vulnerability.

Just when you fear matters are going off the rails, for instance, Perrin and Halaas deliver an understated, devastating back-and-forth about the two sisters' love for each other, and their questions about what might have been, that leave one feeling both wrung out and wishing that it would go on longer.

Not so with the third offering, "Thirst," an abstraction about a nuclear family expressing its collectively parched state, praying for rain. We all get a little thirsty sometimes, in body and soul, but it's too easy a metaphor, and not enough is done with it. Some remarkable cloth-aerialist work by Heather Haugen keeps us engaged, though, even if a descent into interfamilial fisticuffs gives off the whiff of out-of-ideas melodrama.

Still, it's hard to walk out feeling unmoved, or unimpressed by the loveliness of all three works as a whole. All night long we're presented with notions of water, of the oceanic depths, from Halaas's turn as a mermaid in "Passage," to Bessie's love of the family swimming pool in the second act, to the ached-for rain of "Thirst." It's as though one has witnessed a series of paper boats, launched into time and space with skill and affection, across the always-uncertain passage of the waves and the leagues of uncertainty that we all navigate.