Jeff Smith 6 p.m., Feb. 27
In the Wake at San Diego Rep
If Ellen never had to choose, she'd have it all and demand more.
Thanksgiving, 1999: Ellen, her hyper-attentive lover Danny, his sister Kayla, and her spouse Laurie prepare dinner at Ellen's fifth floor, East Village walk-up. They're so chipper, supportive, and forgiving you'd swear Lisa Kron's comedy-drama will be an episode of Friends.
Ellen calls the group "this puppy pile of people." She confesses to a flaw: "the best thing about me is I understand what's irritating about me." And just this once, she won't rail at the political scene - though the Presidential election's becoming a melange of hanging chads and gross usurpation of power (at the Rep, projections by Victoria Petrovich highlight the first four years of the Bush administration, from the recount in Florida, to 9/11, to hurricane Katrina).
In an opening monologue set in the present, Ellen warns us that things back then weren't what they seemed. The car already crashed and she didn't know it. Now, having inspected her past for blind spots, she may have learned to see more clearly.
Unexpected intrusions bombard Ellen's stable solar system. Judy, a humanitarian in scorched-earth countries, hasn't just heard that much of the world drinks polluted water; she's seen the effects. Judy's so dour, in the art world she'd be a "negative space." Amy, a filmmaker, swoops in from another galaxy and falls deep, drop-dead in love with Ellen. When Ellen reciprocates, she must make choices, and must learn that each will involve loss as well - also that her self-centered views don't define reality.
In the Wake is long-ish and talky. In the wrong hands, speeches could become lectures, even sermons. Not at the Rep. Fresh from stellar work with Moxie's A Raisin in the Sun, director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg shoots vivid life into the bulky script.
The tiny details of daily life, in particular. An outstanding ensemble cast lolls around, interacts with rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue, and eats meals with precise realism.
As the play evolves, and their characters escape Ellen's controlling views, anger emerges that had been percolating all along.
All make major contributions: Jo Anne Glover (soft-spoken but pointed Kayla); DeAnna Driscoll (a gruff and riotous Laurie); Alexis Louise Young (a youthful Tessa who deflects every stereotype); Karson St. John (Amy, and masterful when she weaves seduction into a lecture about art); Stephanie Dunnam (blunt and unlikeable, at first, but becomes, in the words of poet Wallace Stevens, "the necessary angel of reality").
Fran Gerke excels as Danny, the nice guy who stays long after he could have abandoned ship. As a measure of his versatility, Gercke also played drug-addled Eddie, the opposite of Danny, in Ion Theatre's Hurlyburly.
Hurlyburly, which premiered in 1984, declared itself a "state of the nation" address for that time. In the Wake, Kron said in an interview, is one for ours. She even claimed that Ellen is "an allegory for the country."
Although Ellen acts like an imperialist, Aubrey Saverino smartly plays her as a slowly fracturing human being rather than a literary construct. On opening night, the fissures could have shown earlier. And at times in the monologues it was difficult to place where Ellen "is" in the present. But Saverino effectively portrayed what for Ellen becomes a tectonic comeuppance.
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown, playing through March 4.