The problem with mortality is that it’s so inconvenient—not just for you, but for those around you, too. The end of your life likely entails wills, bucket lists, doctors visits, awkward calls from grandchildren, arguments about religion… all the things you have the luxury of putting off until impending death forces you to be all reflective. Bekah Brunstetter’s Going to a Place Where You Already Are is about how tough the business of dying is, and how even if those who are going through it manage to confront it gracefully, everyone around them might still lose their shit.
Brunstetter’s play is smart, moving, and surprisingly funny for a piece dealing with the unfunny situation its characters face, some handling it better than others. The person doing the best is Roberta (Annie Houston), a grandmother diagnosed with terminal cancer. Doing worst is Joe (Gregory Ford), her doting husband whose love for her is palpable but whose grief makes him stubborn (he tries to bully her into futile treatments) and selfish (“Don’t I matter anymore?” he asks her). He declares her acceptance of death and newfound belief in an afterlife a betrayal of his scientific outlook and their life together.
Much of the levity comes from a different couple who are less central to the story but are cute together, and they provide a welcome respite from all the God and cancer talk: Ellie (Tricia Homer), Joe’s granddaughter, and Jonas (MacGregor Arney), her drunken hookup–turned–persistent suitor. Refreshingly, the two couples are interracial and even more refreshingly, they don’t make a big deal about it, or even find it worth mentioning. This appears to be director Colin Hovde’s conscious choice, a departure from the original casting by California’s South Coast Repertory. Only Jonas, a paraplegic smart aleck, has to do a sensitivity-training speech, after Ellie initially gives him the “you’re too nice” brush off: “What’s shitty is to assume I’m a saint just because of my chair,” he retorts, although he then goes on being a saint for the rest of the play.
The repartee of Theater Alliance’s actors isn’t flawless (there were a few missed cues at Sunday’s performance). But these relationships—one beginning, another ending—are believable. As Ellie, Homer is instantly recognizable as a self-centered, insecure millennial, a stereotype that nevertheless evokes empathy rather than scorn. As Roberta, Houston is vivacious and only gets more so as the end approaches, while Ford, as Joe, steers ably from quiet panic to condescension to anguish. The only one-dimensional characters are Arney’s angelic Jonas and a literal angel who serves as Roberta’s guide to the afterlife, played by a relentlessly upbeat Alan Naylor.
Going to a Place has a lot of heart; maybe too much at times: Brunstetter’s dialogue has the rhythm of a ’90s family sitcom, going from semi-rude joke to poignant reflection over and over again, so that you soon feel overloaded with all the poignancy. It’s all a little too Touched by an Angel for my taste, and it answers the big metaphysical questions pretty glibly: Is there a God? (Yes). Where do we go when we die? (A celestial diner). What does heaven smell like? (Waffles and grandma’s perfume). Notably, the practical questions—how do you face death, how do you talk about it with those you love—are much harder to answer.
The play runs through June 26. 2020 Shannon Place SE. $20–$35. (202) 241-2539. theateralliance.com.