During this production, Aleque Reid (as Lissette) jumps agilely back and forth along the timeline of her debilitating illness. In one scene, she is a vigorously physical, dynamic, healthy woman; in the next, she is wheelchair-bound and barely moving, but expressing all her former vigor with nothing more than facial expressions and small hand gestures. It is an exquisite performance.
Exquisite is what is required, because the success or failure of this play rests entirely with Lissette. Happily, Reid is more than up to the task.
The other two characters of this trio are best friend Peter and mother Cheryl. Actors Reggie White and Deirdre Lovejoy deliver masterful performances — but they have a lot less to work with. Their characters’ respective conflicts with Lisette’s wish to die arise and are squashed in a single scene each; thereafter, their characters, thoroughly chastened, exist solely to facilitate Lissette’s aim.
In terms of story, this doesn’t work. But the script crafts the only environment where it could: one where no one has any claim on Lissette. It’s carefully established that her mother has forfeited any right to speak into her life. It’s stated several times that Peter, her closest emotional tie, won’t find a boyfriend as long as he remains her caregiver — so, her best friend would be better off if she were dead.
The stellar acting of this production is sufficiently distracting from the contrived situation to make this play a near-perfect propaganda piece. I say that with genuine appreciation: It’s not easy to make a perfect anything, and this was the best executed propaganda I’ve seen in a theater.
But there’s a difference between propaganda and art. Art shows issues — especially highly-charged moral issues — as complicated, not capable of summation by slogan. Art sees people as universally flawed: Art’s heroines are imperfect; they don’t get it all right. Art sees human situations as ambiguous.
Propaganda offers a simple solution to a complicated situation. It renders its audience less able to reach a reasoned decision by manipulating their fear or pity.
That’s exactly what The Luckiest does. As we left the theater, my companion remarked that he couldn’t possibly mount a moral argument against assisted suicide after watching that performance. That’s not art. That’s an emotional cudgel. Art should leave you a little wiser about the human condition. This left us all a little stupider.
Propaganda pieces like this make me angry for the actors and crew. These talented people shed blood, sweat, and tears for every single production. They deserve a better vehicle.
And the audience deserves genuine art. I think we can all agree that our society needs more art and less propaganda. So, why are these propaganda pieces ubiquitous in San Diego theater? I don’t know. But it would be interesting to follow the money.
- The Luckiest, by Melissa Ross
- La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla
- Jaime Castaneda, director; Deirdre Lovejoy, Cheryl; Aleque Reid, Lissette; Reggie D. White, Peter; Tim Mackabee, scenic design; Denitsa Bliznakova, costume design; Lap Chi Chu, lighting design; Ryan Rumery, composer and sound design