Saturday, March 25, 2023

"What / Washed Ashore / Astray" at Pillsbury House Theatre

In just 80 minutes, playwright Benjamin Benne succinctly writes about the experience of the death of a beloved family member with raw honesty and simple beauty. Despite the odd structure of the title, What / Washed Ashore / Astray is a very human story, with a little room for play and magic. Having recently gone through this experience, this play hit very close to home for me, and I was wiping away tears throughout the show. But it's quite lovely to see one of the most fundamental human experiences depicted on stage in such a beautiful way. Combined with wonderful performances from three of #TCTheater's best actors, an incredibly detailed set design that places us right there in the seaside cottage, and some delightfully inventive shadow puppetry, What / Washed Ashore / Astray is a must see for anyone interested in thoughtful human dramas (continuing through April 16 at Pillsbury House Theatre in South Minneapolis).

Melissa Hart and Barbra Berlovitz (photo by Bruce Silcox) 
This is the story of Chris and Cat, twin sisters who spent their early years closely entwined before embarking on their own paths. Now in their 70s, they're brought back together by Cat's diagnosis of ALS. Chris, a retired nurse, offers to care for Cat until the end at their family cottage by the sea, where Chris has been living and where they spent many happy times as children. Cat's daughter Jamie is less than thrilled with this new plan, which includes a DNI/DNR order; she had just arranged for her mother to move into a specialized care facility where she would have access to all the latest treatments. Letting go is hard, but Jamie eventually comes to realize that this is Cat's life, and Cat's death, and she gets to decide how it's going to go (a privilege not many of us get). They play follows these three women to the end, and beyond. #bringtissues

Jamie and Auntie on the shore (Tracey Maloney and
Barbra Berlovitz, photo by Bruce Silcox)
Noël Raymond directs the piece with sensitivity and grace, smoothly incorporating the memories into the present narrative. All three actors give such raw and real performances; they really feel like a family, as well as distinct individuals with their own ideas and opinions. Melissa Hart's portrayal of a woman dying with dignity and agency is devastatingly beautiful. Barbra Berlovitz is also wonderful as the no-nonsense caregiver, who's saying goodbye to a part of herself. Completing the trio is Tracey Maloney as Jamie, realistically portraying a daughter who's being asked to let go of a parent, when that's the best and the hardest thing to do.

The script and performances would be enough to make this a beautiful play, but the addition of the shadow puppetry (designed by Oanh Vu and Andrew Young and performed by them along with Izzy Alesna) adds another layer of depth and beauty. As Chris and Cat reminisce about their childhood, we see the scenes play out in shadow - running on the beach, constructing a fishing pole out of a stick. We also see the waves of the ocean or the sunset in glorious color, even a beached whale. Memory and nature come to life in a magical mystical way.

It's hard to separate the puppetry from the rest of the design, which is also lovely and evocative. The seaside cottage is brought to life in exquisite detail by scenic designer Joel Sass (natch). A raised deck spans the entirety of Pillsbury House's long performance space, a detailed cozy living room scene on the left, a deck looking out over the ocean on the right, and a framed screen at center stage. This is where the puppetry plays out, transforming the off-white surface into another world. Sounds of the ocean, as well as recorded voices, and lighting that softens and dims for the puppetry show, all contribute to the seaside ambience (sound design by C. Andrew Mayer, lighting design by Kathy Maxwell.)

What / Washed Ashore / Astray performs Wednesdays through Sundays until April 16; evening shows are at 7pm and just 80 minutes so no excuses not to see this beautiful rumination on death, life, love, and family.