Failure is defined as the state of not functioning and the lack of success. For most “success” stories, failure is a part of the journey. Although unsatisfactory results are tough to accept at the moment they occur, the long term gain can prove to be invaluable – lessons learned that can inform a lifetime.
In Failure: a Love Story, the second show of Hub Theatre’s sixth season, it is the omission of expected action that best describes this fanciful souvenir of love, longing, and loss, and it’s a salient reminder of the Alfred Lord Tennyson adage ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than to never have been loved at all.’
“Just because something ends,” one character tells another in the play “doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great success.”
The DC area premiere of Failure: a Love Story is the innovative work of Chicago playwright Phillip Dawkins (no relation), whom I was first exposed to last June in the stage reading of this same play at Hub Theatre’s New Play Festival. It was the clear, run away hit with the audience that Festival weekend, and I am certain it will delight audiences even more in this colorful, fully staged production. The magical realism of Failure: a Love Story, and Dawkins’ poetic play on words and hopeful characters make for a fresh, original tale.
Thewriting is distinctly reminiscent of the rapid fire wit of the 1920’s and the play inventively directed by Matt Bassett traces three distinct sisters, Nelly (Maggie Erwin), Jenny June (Tia Shearer), and Gerty (Carolyn Kashner) Fail’s triumphs and defeats. Heartfelt and emotional, the quirky storytelling speaks to the fragility of love and life and the seriocomic portrait of life before, during, and after death. If the compelling characters are the heart of this production, then it’s the vocally created clock sounds and the music from the eight songs (four written by Dawkins and most of the music is created by sound designer Patrick Calhoun) sung throughout the play that are the charms.
This music fable is a simple story of the Fail family who lived (and died) in Chicago, and their family home – a ricketytwo-story building by the Chicago River – that also serves as their family business. The Fail family owns and operates a successful clock shop and the theme of clocks and the recurring reference to time provides a poignant metaphor in the play. The narrative style serves as a playful buta potentreference to the internal tick-tock of time that is upon us. As much as people try to organize and plan their lives, there are many unexpected things that we would never imagine that lie ahead.
The year is 1928. It is the last year of each of the Fail Sisters’ lives – and they never see death coming.
Be assured. I am not revealing any plot secrets. Announced within the opening minutes, the playwright does it himself, informing the audience that by the end of the year the three Fail sisters will be dead – youngest to the oldest – one by blunt object, one by disappearance, and one by consumption. What might be surprising, if one was to judge the title alone, is that Failure: a Love Story is not a sad story or a gory tale.
This is a story that celebrates the reverence of life.
What follows is the Fail’s life story beginning with the history of their parents’ marriage and immigration to Chicago, the discovery of a baby boy who becomes their adopted brother (Chris Stinson is quite humorous and precious as the socially constipated John N.), the specialized devotion to their family business, and an unlikely car accident.
At its core, Failure: A Love Story is about investor Mortimer Mortimer (Michael Kevin Darnall exudes sincerity and confidence with his likeable, and sympathetic character.) and how he falls in love with all three of the Fail sisters, only to lose them.
Embracing the beauty that comes from the pain and grief of lost love, this ensemble of six play multiple peculiar roles including people, dogs, a giant snake, parakeets, clocks, and a gramophone. (Rose McConnell shines with imaginative whimsy.) The actors’ freedom with their versatile stylized performances is engaging, committed, and truthfulin this period piece gem. The imagery, firecracker narration, direct audience address, and overall improvisational tone defy conventional staging . . . and expectations.
The dedication of this cast, who thoroughly understand their characters, extends far beyond the performance on stage. (Tia Shearer even raised her own salary through a Kickstarter campaign to affirm her loyalty to the production when there was early sponsor funding uncertainty.)
The set consists of very little, but the intimate space of the sixty-seat Hub Theatre makes you feel like you are a part of it all. Scenic designer Betsy Muller provides an attractive charcoal drawing on a three panel canvas of a Chicago riverscape backdrop, and a piano, an oversized table and two trunks are used creatively. The plentiful props (Suzanne Maloney) in this production are used fill the ‘open space’ and Maria Vetsch’s costumes are vintage excellence.
Hub Theatre and the artistic direction of Helen Pafumi specialize in staging their ever widening circle of brave, artful stories embracing diverse aspects of community, always while managing humorous undertones – like Failure: A Love Story.
The time we have to live on this earth is short and unknown, and to live without consciousness and purpose is waste of a precious gift. Every person that comes into our lives leaves a bit of themselves with us, shaping how we are and who we become.
In the end, love is all there is.
Failure: A Love Story will make you laugh – you might even shed a tear – but what is certain is that you will be left with the illuminating glow of this inspired journey, thankful for the good times.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Failure: A Love Story plays until May 18, 2014 at The Hub Theatre – at the John Swazye Theatre (the New School of Northern Virginia) – 9431 Silver King Court, in Fairfax, Virginia. Here are directions. Purchase tickets online.