It is hard to know what to make of And So It Goes, a 2010 play by George F. Walker about the downward spiral of a middle-class family. Many elements of the play fit comfortably within what feels like a fairly common theatrical genre: two baby boomers are caught in a struggle with both unemployment and their daughter’s mental illness, and they find themselves watching their lives slowly crumble around them.
But then Kurt Vonnegut appears from beyond the grave. He might be a hallucinatory symptom of the parents’ own mental illness. Or more benignly, an embodied coping mechanism. Or more academically, the play’s way of shifting genres from realism into surrealism.
In other words, it’s kind of a weird play.
Dark & Stormy Productions has taken a risk on And So It Goes, and they’ve also taken a risk to stage it the way they do – in the round, in a room in the Grain Belt Warehouse with a giant pillar in the middle of it. Director Benjamin McGovern addresses the issue in a program note, stating that we all have individual blind spots, and we are invited to look across the room at other members of the audience to “see [the play] through their eyes.”
This is essentially a clever way to cover up for an inconvenient bit of architecture, but you know what? It works. In the relatively small space, with parts of the action taking place in chairs in the same circle with the audience, we all have a chance to be right up close to the actors, and we also have moments of wondering what is happening behind that pillar. As McGovern suggests, I did try to see the play through the eyes of the other spectators across the room. The expressions on their faces weren’t always enlightening, but the experience of observing other audience members added an interesting level of disjointedness to a play that is already structured around a fragmented narrative.
If Vonnegut were a therapist
It’s not like the actors are pretending the audience isn’t there, either. If you’re used to sitting at a safe distance from a proscenium stage, it will feel startling how much eye contact you end up making with everyone in the room. It’s like we are all part of a giant psychodrama therapy group, with Kurt Vonnegut as our collective therapist.
This experience highlights both the production’s greatest strength and what felt like the script’s greatest weakness. McGovern – and the whole cast, whose excellent performances I’ll get to in a minute – has made some bold and effective choices to bring out the surrealism of the whole scenario. But despite the presence of Kurt Vonnegut, the script itself somehow wasn’t surreal or absurd enough for me.
Vonnegut is too easily explainable as a manifestation of the characters’ inner turmoil. And as the characters’ lives spiral out of control, the play retains the same mostly-realistic balance of tragedy and comedy, while its structure and premise seem to have been setting us up for a turn towards the more bizarre.
All of these hesitations aside, the characters are wonderfully drawn, and the ensemble is a pleasure to watch. James Craven plays Kurt Vonnegut with exactly the kind of wry, deadpan wit that you’d imagine coming from the author of “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Cat’s Cradle.” He’s the most restrained member of the cast, but his well-placed observations are some of the highlights of the show.
Gwen and Ned, the middle-aged couple in the play, each adopt Vonnegut as their psychic guide, but their different reactions to him add color to their characters. Gwen, played with festering anger by Sally Wingert, uses Vonnegut as a pillar of stability when she feels most isolated from her husband. Ned, on the other hand, is just charmed by the idea of hanging out with Vonnegut, regardless of the fact that he’s a psychological construct.
Both Wingert and Robert Dorfman, who plays Ned, go through an astonishing transformation over the course of the play’s two acts. Using no more than their costuming and physicality, they convincingly move from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle to extreme poverty without losing the core of their characters. Dorfman, whose highly expressive face is the key to his character, moves seamlessly from affability to volatile desperation, while Wingert goes through a more subtle, but no less intriguing, shift into resignation.
I had a more mixed response to Sara Marsh as their schizophrenic daughter Karen. Here, I probably suffered from the fact that my significant other works with severely mentally ill clients; he kept speculating about whether Karen’s diagnosis had been written or played accurately, and whether or not she was supposed to have been on medication. In the end, we decided that Marsh did a convincing job playing a character whose diagnosis may not be 100% accurate. I particularly appreciated the fact that, since mentally ill people believe their worldviews to be true, Marsh fully buys into Karen’s paranoia, rather than playing it as a delusion.
Sometimes, the process of reviewing a play helps me to understand it more. In this case, it didn’t – for my taste, the play just doesn’t delve far enough into its weirdness to justify its being weird. But it is certainly interesting and surprisingly funny, and Dorfman and Wingert give particularly compelling performances.
Dark & Stormy Productions has a thing for picking challenging plays – most recently, by Harold Pinter, William Mastrosimone, and now George F. Walker. It is to their credit that whether or not I’ve been totally satisfied with the play itself, the company’s strong direction and top-notch acting invariably add up to an intriguing and enjoyable theatrical experience that finds the humor in the darkest and most bizarre scenarios.