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Before We’re Gone – 13th Street Repertory Theatre Company, New York

Writer: Jerry Small

Director: Joe John Battista

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

An undersized stage can be the backdrop for oversized discussions, and that seems to be the goal in Jerry Small’s Before We’re Gone, ending its limited run at the 13th Street Repertory Theatre. Opening on a dimly lit motel room, award-winning playwright Kathleen “Kate” Maguire (played with theatrical flair by Leenya Rideout) is losing her battle with brain cancer and planning to overdose on morphine—a course of action that only her agent Barney knows about (one of several roles played by Jay Russell). Just as she’s about to put the needle to her vein, there is a demanding knock on her motel room door. Enter Rich Flynn (John Zdrojeski), a man she knew once upon a time, twenty-five years earlier. His reappearance in her life sparks a very particular and somewhat enlightening trip down memory lane, from 1981 to 1956, and back again.

As if cancer and suicide (or rather, death with dignity for the terminally ill) aren’t thematically sufficient, this script touches on and attempts to sew together such other topics as religion, communism, adultery, divorce, love and human connection, and theatre itself. While these things can and do coexist in real life (more often than we might even realize or acknowledge), it can feel a bit slapdash in this production, as though Small had several things to say but hadn’t found why he needed to say them. Before We’re Gone is also another play about playwrights that doesn’t shine new light on the creative process or the artistic soul. 

This production is not without some chuckles, shallow though they may be. Well placed throughout the story to appropriately lighten the mood, the laugh lines are easy, best served to an audience not interested in doing any work. They’re not grounded in or connected to the heavier topics at hand and therefore don’t serve to deepen the connection to or concern for the main characters. In callous fact, the more one learns about Kate after the opening scene, the less invested one is in whether she lives or dies. The foundation is there for her to be a fascinating and fiery as well as sympathetic character, but something in the way she’s both written and performed (i.e. from a man’s point of view—she remembers her younger self as having “spectacular hair” and “insolent breasts”—and with more affectation than seems necessary) puts up a wall between her and a potential sympathizer.

Cleanly directed by Joe John Battista, save for one sloppily executed kick to the testicles in the first act, he and his cast understand how to use space well, and create relationships that are both understood and enhanced through physical choices. The set, designed by Brian Dudkiewicz, is economically effective, believably and almost seamlessly moving from one hotel room to another, to Flynn’s father’s house, to locations without reality-based boundaries.

This story does have emotional depth, though it fights itself to engage with it fully. Sensitive people will likely shed tears at the end (this reviewer admittedly did). Someone less easily swayed by an impersonation of sincerity, though, might find themselves frustrated with the production’s use of melodrama over realism, in what could otherwise be a timeless, heartbreaking, and uplifting story about the politics of humanity, about love, and about death. While the script raises several questions that may feed a lively post-show discussion, the loudest question remains, why?

Runs until 5 August 2018 | Image: John Phelps

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The American team is under the editorship of Adrienne Sowers. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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