Playwright Will Eno is not out to make theatre-going easy. A program interview quotes him as saying, “Being in a theater feels like being out in the jungle dark.” Well, if THAT’s how he feels about it, he’s not likely to write light comedy, and he doesn’t. Nor is it necessarily his goal to entertain.
Rather, his work, typical of “theatre of the absurd,” confronts us with basic existential dilemmas, and such confrontations are not generally feel-good experiences.
And yet, paradoxically, Eno does make us feel good. Someone once described the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, another dabbler in existential crises, as a writer who “put bitter coatings on sugar pills.” This might also describe Eno. Actor Tony Hale, who stars in “Wakey, Wakey” is perhaps affirming this when he tells an interviewer that he hopes audiences will walk away “feeling encouraged.” Even though the play is about death.
When the lights come up, Guy is lying on the floor next to his wheelchair. Spotting the audience, he quips: “I thought I had more time,” before managing to crawl onto the chair. This is a quip, we realize because it is apparent that Guy is dying. And for some unknown reason, we find ourselves in what appears to be a high school auditorium, and Guy is about to give a lecture about his death and how he now feels about life. We are simultaneously at the beginning (high school) and the end (death).
Guy is about as ordinary a man as you could possibly imagine. He doesn’t tell us an interesting story about his life. His mind wanders. He’s just present. That is all he has to offer. He shares a few memories that are really just moments, like the time a teacher said something that made an impression. He smiles. He is not entertaining. There is no suspense. He offers us absolutely nothing but his presence, essentially at the moment of his death. He is there for us. He gently encourages us to wake up (“Wakey, wakey”) and recognize this. He seems to think that might be important and then he’s gone. Tony Hale’s performance, as directed by Anne Kauffman, is a fine example of artistic acting, achieving what appears to be effortless simplicity, without false notes, forced emotion, or theatrical exaggeration.
“Wakey, Wakey” seems to evoke wildly divergent responses. Some reviewers seem to think it is merely an almost hostile confrontation with an audience who must sit through forty minutes of what seems like nothing at all. Such viewers find the play inexcusably flimsy.
Others, myself included, are deeply moved.
I don’t know, but I suspect, that which camp one falls into will depend on what you bring to your seat. To explain this, I will have to share an intimate story, but it’s the only way I can think of to respond to this play. And it is a play so simple and intimate that it invites a similar response.
Six months ago, my husband died of lung cancer, only shortly after an unanticipated diagnosis. We were married for only six weeks. We’d known each other longer than that. We met decades ago in our 20s and were a couple for a year or two, before drifting apart. I was then lost to alcoholism for many years. I suspect he was too. We both had lives that might be described as sad in many ways. He was a brilliant attorney who never really had any sort of career. I’m an intellectual who drank away every opportunity to advance in academia and wound up finishing my working life as a substitute teacher. (And a theatre reviewer, which I love, and life is not grim.) Thanks to FB, we reconnected when we were in our 60s (30 years past our first encounter), found we were still in love and spent a lovely two years together making a home. A few months before Jim’s terminal diagnosis, a cousin of his passed away suddenly during routine surgery. Jim was distraught. It seemed so meaningless. He took to quoting Macbeth about how “life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.” Then, after a couple of weeks of a nagging cough, he was found to have lung cancer. We married for insurance purposes. Then he had a major stroke which turned out to be secondary to brain metastases and he was given a prognosis of fewer than two months to live. From that date, he never spoke again—only “yes” or “no.” Nor could he walk or move on his own from bed to wheelchair. He was incontinent and completely paralyzed on one side of his body. He communicated extraordinarily well with smiles, blushes, grunts, winks, raised eyebrows and gestures. We could not easily talk about anything “meaningful,” and the days were uneventful. Two days before his death, I wheeled him outside on to a patio by a field. As we were sitting, holding hands, he suddenly pointed over my shoulder, his face transfixed with interest and delight. I turned to see a cat wandering across the field.
“The cat?” I asked, a bit puzzled.
“Yes! Yes!” he pointed again and his face lit up.
And that was all he had to offer, at the end. Suddenly, he could SEE the cat and nothing else mattered at that moment. Not his life to that point, nor his impending death. Just him, and me, and seeing the cat: “Wakey, Wakey.”
And that, too, is all that Guy offers in Eno’s play. He’s just a guy who, in his last moments, can see in a new way and he wants us to see too. It’s a gift, from the playwright and the company of artists presenting his play. Take it or leave it. For myself, I found Tony Hale’s performance apt, moving, real and complete. But then, I sat with my dying spouse only a few short months before attending.
So, as I said, what you bring to the encounter may determine what you take from it. I suggest it is worth the trip to find whatever you find.
For this production at A.C.T., playwright Eno was commissioned to create and workshop a companion piece as a curtain-raiser, intended to showcase the students in A.C.T.’s MFA program. He offers “The Substitution,” in which a substitute teacher for a driver’s ed class drifts into other subjects about the passage of time and the meaning of history. It is light and amusing in its depiction of archetypical high school students, suddenly being called upon to examine the meaning of life, and links well thematically with “Wakey, Wakey.” The MFA students demonstrate impressive professionalism. They are Dinah Berkeley, Leroy S. Graham III, Emma Van Lare, and Jeff Wittekiend. They are joined by Kathryn Smith McGlynn as the substitute teacher. McGlynn also appears in “Wakey, Wakey” as a hospice nurse who attends Guy’s final moments, and she performs well.
The excellent set, realistically depicting a high school auditorium, is the work of Kimie Nishikawa (who also designed the costumes) and the lighting, which perfectly captures the institutional feel of a public high school, is by Russell H. Champa.
“Wakey, Wakey” continues at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater through February 16. For further information click here.
Rating: ****(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Wakey, Wakey” by Will Eno. Presented by American Conservatory Theater. Director: Anne Kauffman. Scenic and Costume Designer: Kimie Nishikawa. Lighting Designer: Russel H. Champba. Sound and Projections Designer: Leah Gelpe. Joe Goode; Choreographer. Voice Coach: Christine Adaire. Movement Coach: Danyon Davis.
Jennifer: Dinah Berkeley.** Bobby: Leroy S. Graham III.** Guy: Tony Hale.* Ms. Forester/Lisa: Kathryn Smith-McGlynn.* Marisol: Emma Van Lare.* Jimmy: Jeff Wittekiend.**
**MFA Actor *Member of Equity