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A CurtainUp Review
Afterlife: A Ghost Story

By Jenny Sandman Boomershine
You can't reckon with me.—The Ocean
There's something about looking at what's left. — Connor
afterlife: a ghost story.
Marianna Bassham as Danielle and Thomas Piper as Connor
(Photo: Andrew Brilliant)
Steve Yockey's Afterlife: A Ghost Story at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA, has a pitch-perfect first act. The second act is so different as to be almost an entirely separate play.

I then enjoyable first act. Connor (Thomas Piper) and Danielle (Marianna Bassham) are a young married couple, boarding up their beach house before a big storm. We know something is very wrong-Danielle is brittle and strange, Connor desperate to draw her out of her shell but failing on every level. Slowly, we figure out that their three-year-old son has recently drowned-in the very ocean their house overlooks. They're boarding it up largely because Danielle can't bear to live there anymore. And as she starts hearing her son's cries on the wind, we fear she's losing it altogether.

The production gets the grief exactly right, both in the couple's tension and their raw emotionality. That's how deep grief feels-the world seems fantastically remote. You can't engage on any level with anything meaningful, and yet everything feels raw. Every emotion gets buried out of sight, pushed away, because if one strays and gets to the surface, the fountain of grief will erupt. Danielle holds it together because she's largely anesthetized herself. Connor, however, wants to reengage with the world and Danielle resists because she knows how much that will hurt. The act is a tug of war between them, and eventually, that fountain of grief and anger does erupt, just as the storm hits. Actors Thomas Piper and Marianna Bassham have great chemistry and director Kate Warner keeps that first act on a razor's edge.

Oh, but then. The second a ct.

This is when the carefully constructed realism disappears (both literally and figuratively, as the house set is rolled back). The stage is divided into three playing areas, consisting of a young man who may be the grown-up version of Connor and Danielle's drowned son. . . a blindfolded and immobile Connor, washed up on some snowy beach. . . and Danielle, who has found her way from a storm into the home of two strange ladies, one of whom sews constantly and the other who drinks a lot of tea. It's likely that he three characters (Connor, Danielle and son) are each in some separate, individual, timeless version of purgatory. The son tries to write letters to his parents, but the postman rips them up every day. Connor is visited by a giant talking black bird, who urges him to "let go. Danielle realizes that the tea-drinking old woman is actually the embodiment of the ocean that took her son. And they're all trapped in their own spheres, with no way to move on or find the others.

Got all that? I appreciate what playwright Yockey is trying to convey, and I also appreciate his lyrical language and lush, dreamy imagery. But sith barely anything to anchor it to the first act, the second act now offers nothing in the way of either character or story development, and feels fractured from the start. It does benefit from lush and dreamy set, lighting and sound design (Cristina Todesco, Karen Parsons, and David Remedios) that's a counterpoint to initial act's heavy emotion of the first act. Dale Place as the mysterious Postman, is also noteworthy as the giant black bird (using an ingenious giant puppet designed by Pandora Andrea Gastelum).

Overall, I enjoyed this, my first time at New Rep. It's a wonderful space. (Free parking didn't hurt) and I'[m eager to see their next offering, Theresa Rebeck's DollHouse at the end of February.
Afterlife: A Ghost Story
Written by Steve Yockey
Directed by Kate Warner
With Marianna Bassham (Danielle), Adrianne Krstansky (The Proprietress), Georgia Lyman (The Seamstree), Karl Baker Olson (Young Man), Thomas Piper (Connor) and Dale Place (Postman/Black Bird)
Set Design: Cristina Todesco
Lighting Design: Karen Parsons
Sound Design: David Remedios
Costume Design: Frances Nelson McSherry
Running Time: Two hours with one fifteen-minute intermission
New Repertory Theatre, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts; 321 Arsenal St, Watertown, MA
Tickets begin at $28
Thursday 7:30 pm, Friday 8 pm, Saturday 3 pm and 8 pm, Sunday 2 pm
January 16 - February 6, 2011
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman Boomershine based on January 29th performance
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