It’s hard to talk about Melissa James Gibson’s This, mainly because the title is tricky, and the subject matter is prickly. Not that the play doesn’t deserve buzz — reviews use words like “tart” and phrases such as “melancholy comedy” and “quirky cult appeal.” There’s emotional depth and sparkling dialogue.
“There’s one scene in particular where I swear she wrote down a conversation I had with my best friend,” says Angie Flynn-McIver, who directs This as the final installment in this season’s Mainstage Series at N.C. Stage Company. “It has that kind of eavesdropping feeling to it.”
Flynn-McIver, also N.C. Stage’s producing director, says that when the season was mapped out, This was selected as the closer because it has an intimacy that’s suited to the theater’s aesthetic and space. “Plays about relationships and personal strife and transformation are something that I feel like we’re particularly good at,” she says. “It’s not a play that has any spectacle to it. You don’t need to fly in an angel.”
It’s possible, however, that the characters in This might appreciate an angel — especially one that stops them from making the bad (but fascinating) decisions that serve as the performance’s vehicle. The play revolves around a group of besties (Flynn-McIver says to think of Friends, the ‘90s-era TV show, but 15 years later) who’ve known each other since college. There’s Jane, a poet and teacher, recently widowed. There’s Tom (a sculptor and cabinet maker) and his wife Marrell (a jazz singer) who are dangerously sleep-deprived new parents. There’s Alan, who is gay and quick with a witty retort, and who makes a living by showing off his perfect recall on TV shows, and there’s French doctor Jean-Pierre, a recent addition to the group, who the others are trying to set up with Jane.
The play begins with a game that goes wrong and upsets Jane, and then Tom tries to comfort her, which leads to you-know-what, and it all unravels from there. National Post called a production from earlier this year “a very American play by a Canadian playwright.”
It’s also very current, which is where the play’s hard-to-handle title comes in. Your friends ask you what you’re doing this weekend and you say, “Going to see This,” and no one knows what you’re talking about. Flynn-McIver deals with the confusion every day in rehearsals: “Are you ready to do … This?” But the director has a theory, and it has to do with how so many people post articles or video or photos on Facebook under the catchall header “This.”
“It’s a little bit like that,” says Flynn-McIver. “‘It’s this thing that I can’t quite put into words, but it’s encapsulated in this image or this experience.’” There are times in the play’s dialogue that characters call each other out on ambiguous phrasing — this and it.
“These are not the primary colors of emotions, the anger and the love and the sadness,” says Flynn-McIver. “It’s the stuff that’s in between. The connective tissue.”
But to tap those secondary emotions, and to create the “Friends 2.0” setup, the four actors in This had to get really close, really quickly. During the first several rehearsals, Flynn-McIver let the group go off-track, because getting to know one another was just as important as learning lines. The dynamic had to evolve into a casual, familiar, almost familial vibe. “To replicate that on stage is really tricky for a group of people who all walked into a room for the first time two weeks ago,” says the director.
In fact, the initial connections between the actors were remarkably slim: Warren Wilson College theater faculty member (and N.C. Stage newcomer) Candace Taylor (who plays Marrell) and N.C. Stage veteran Anne Thibault (Jane) had acted together once, a decade ago, in Tennessee. That’s it. The other performers include Damian Duke Domingue (Alan) from N.C. Stage’s recent production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Catori Swann (Jean-Pierre) appeared in N.C. Stage’s In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play. Mondy Carter (Tom) is new to N.C. Stage. He’s a member of improv comedy troupe Reasonably Priced Babies.
This concludes a successful season for the local theater company. “We’ve sold more tickets this year than we’ve ever sold,” says Flynn-McIver. Looking ahead to next year, N.C. Stage will move into its 12th season with a sneak-peek announcement coming this summer. That preview is likely to include a world premier of a new script as well as a regional premier. “We’re trying to break some new ground next year with the play selection,” she says.
But first, the current season closes on a high note. Of This, Flynn-McIver says, “I think people will really see themselves in at least one of these characters.” Minus the questionable choices, of course.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
where: N.C. Stage
when: Through Sunday, June 9 (Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $10-$28. http://www.ncstage.org)