Review: ‘‘I Will Not Go Gently’ at 1812 Productions in Philadelphia

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Back in the eighties and nineties, there was no rock star edgier or more electrifying than Sierra Mist. (No, she’s no relation to the soda.) But that was a long time ago. Now it’s 2016, and Sierra is rehearsing for her comeback tour. She’s still got the leather jacket, the high heeled boots, the working class English accent, and that finely sculpted head of hair… but something’s not the same.

Jennifer Childs as Sierra Mist. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jennifer Childs as Sierra Mist. Photo by Mark Garvin.

For one thing, the best gig she could get for her opening night is in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And in the years she’s been out of the spotlight, the music scene – and life in general – has passed her by. She’s bewildered by young people, with their internet and their e-cigarettes, and she’s desperate to seem like she’s still one of them. And now a hip young singer has stolen Sierra’s act, not to mention the heart of Sierra’s teenage daughter. But Sierra, with her steely facade and massive ego, won’t concede to anyone – not even herself – that she’s not as tough and as relevant a rocker as she ever was.

“I have a C-section scar,” she declares. “I think that’s pretty punk rock.”

Sierra’s journey into middle age is at the heart of I Will Not Go Gently, the new show written and performed by Jennifer Childs. It’s a funny and poignant examination of the march of time and how it affects everyone – not just middle-aged rockers. Childs has a remarkable talent for delineating characters via voice, expressions, gestures, and revealing turns of phrase. In I Will Not Go Gently she gets to cover a wide range of characters – and a wide range of ages. And each character reflects their generation, for better or worse.

There’s Abby, who is 47, the same age as Sierra. She grew up idolizing Sierra, but she’s no rocker herself; these days her only rebellion consists of drinking wine while practicing yoga. She watched one of Sierra’s recent TV appearances and was shocked: “She was… awful!” And now she’s wondering what that means for her as she ages: “Do the things we love change or do we change? Have I lost the part of myself that used to love mosh pits and 2 a.m. visits to the diner and boys with blue hair?”

If Sierra and Abby represent two different sides of the same coin, Childs’ other characters go in different directions. We meet Abby’s petulant teenage daughter Tabitha, who considers whatever her mother does “lame.” (“We don’t care about how much time it took to dial the phone” when you were young, she says.) The character is a bit of a cliché, but Childs takes the cliché and expands upon it. Tabitha’s dizzying multiple conversations (via phone, text, social media and skype) on at least five different devices, performed nimbly by Childs, provide the show’s funniest, and truest, moment.

Then there’s Abby’s indefatigable ninety-year-old grandmother Frieda, who has decided to give stand-up comedy a try. The targets of Frieda’s routine seem a tad generic, and the character of a saucy elderly lady seems too indebted to Sophia on The Golden Girls. Still, the scene works well because the jokes themselves, and Childs’ spry delivery, are undeniably funny. (Childs’ experience doing tribute shows to legendary comics like Phyllis Diller and Gracie Allen seems to have paid great dividends; her timing during this routine shows a mastery of the comedic rhythms of a bygone generation.)

Childs also scores as Daphne Thundergrass, an ex-TV star (she played a superhero named Dyna-Woman) who now gives lectures on “Unlocking Your Inner Superhero.” Stalking the stage with a headset microphone and robotic hand gestures, Daphne comes off as a faded star of a different sort than Sierra, one trying to extend her youth – and her fifteen minutes of fame – any way she can.

Jennifer Childs as Tabitha. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Jennifer Childs as Tabitha. Photo by Mark Garvin.

And in one of the show’s best showcases for Childs’ observational humor, she plays multiple characters, male and female, at Abby’s 25 year college reunion. They’ve all changed since their college days, but some more than others; one declares “I don’t drink anymore, I’m certified in pilates, and I’m slowly but surely paying off my student loans.”

I Will Not Go Gently – the title refers to Dylan Thomas’ poem on death where he urges the reader to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – takes on aging with remarkable grace and good spirits. It even mixes some pathos in with the comedy without ever feeling heavy.

While Childs’ targets can seem overly familiar, the inventive way she approaches them makes nearly everything seem fresh. And if the ending seems vague and inconclusive, it also has an air of optimism that is uplifting.

Harriet Powers’ direction is gently paced, with transitions between the show’s thirteen vignettes that allow ample time for each scene to introduce itself. Lance Kniskern’s set design spoofs arena rock excess while allowing for several different platforms for Childs to perform on. And Jorge Cousineau contributes some clever videos; a short subject on the making of one of Sierra’s albums that captures the tone of music documentaries perfectly.

The songs, with lyrics by Childs and music by Christopher Colucci, emulate the sounds of several eras well – jamming guitar rock for eighties anthems, and spooky synth pop for a paranoid track (supposedly recorded in 1999) called “Y2K.” That song, with its warnings of a digital apocalypse, is a great send up of dated doomsday thinking. Some of the lyrics are hard to make out in the song mix, but if you missed anything, you can get the excellent soundtrack online.

In her final song, Sierra sings “I’ve had my time now let it drop / I don’t think I’m supposed to stop / Oh no, I just go faster and faster.” Let’s hope Sierra, and her extended circle, never stop.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

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I Will Not Go Gently plays through Sunday, May 15, 2016, at 1812 Productions, performing at Plays & Players Theatre – 1714 Delancey Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 592-9560, or purchase them online.

LINK:
A Conversation about Women and Aging with Jennifer Childs and Harriet Power of 1812 Productions’ ‘I Will Not Go Gently’ by Deb Miller on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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