With a recent guest shot on Law and Order and roles in independent films, Lydia is a single 50 year-old actress with a middling career. She arrives in Boulder, Colorado, in the spring of 2001 from Los Angeles to be with her slightly older dying sister. A recovering alcoholic and ex-drug abuser, Jane is in the last stages of liver cancer. In her youth, this free-spirited artist traveled the world and met and married the affable Filipino Tai Chi instructor Bayani. Their lively unmarried late 20’s daughter Nikki is pregnant and close to her due date. Also, integral to the action is the younger Max, a soulful though wry Buddhist instructor and mentor to Jane. “Do you know the Dalai Lama eats meat? Yes, he does. Beware about being too attached to ideas. Even the good ones.”
Provocatively on view throughout is a large series of headless nude drawings of aged women done by Jane and that the insecure Lydia finds appalling.
Years earlier, Jane and Bayani moved to the United States from the Philippines to care for her dysfunctional parents who died in succession as Lydia was too busy with her career to do. Simmering resentments between them erupt. Jane desires a Buddhist funeral that would have Lydia leading the rituals that involve washing her body and presiding at her public open cremation. Philosophical loftiness clashes with mundane conflicts.
A poetically silent flashback, expressive dialogue and documentary detail about Buddhism are among the tools Ms. Faigao-Hall beautifully employs in crafting her affective scenario. The enduring and universal themes of familial discord, the meaning of life and the impact of death are all vividly dramatized through Faigao-Hall’s insightful writing and disciplined yet breezy structure.
Joyously singing “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” while wearing her gleaming white funeral dress and sitting in a pine coffin is one of many luminous moments Bernadette Quigley has during her majestic performance as Jane. Her head wrapped in a scarf and when lying in bed or maneuvering around on a cane, Ms. Quigley exudes dignity, serenity and tempestuousness with her blazing eyes and fiery vocal delivery. Quigley is the play’s forceful center.
Whether pondering a facelift, detailing her sorry finances or being supportive, Jan Leslie Harding is equally as impressive as the formidable Lydia. Reveling in middle-aged angst, Ms. Harding offers a contemplative and combative portrait of a woman on her own coping with profound despair. The charming Harding conveys variable strength by her alternatively hard-edged and warm presence. She and Quigley have a charged sisterly vibe that electrifies their fierce battles.
Portraying Bayani with haunting tenderness is the commandingly mellow Fenton Li. The bearded and intense Michael Rabe marvelously emits spirituality as Max while also getting laughs. Animated and appealing Mallory Ann Wu is delightful as the loquacious Nikki.
Director Ian Morgan injects as much focus and visual variety as possible with his energetic staging, melding the fine performances with picturesque qualities. These take place on scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen’s spacious rectangular set that gorgeously depicts an artist’s rustic compound. Downstage represents the outdoors and there are circular earth tone rugs, several round areas each with an arresting configuration of rocks, a wood bench and the porch. Upstage is the house with a slightly raised area for Janet’s bedroom often with a gauzy curtain in front of it. It’s all a perfect optical accompaniment.
The shifting dimensions of realism, memory and fantasy are achieved by Jen Hill’s kinetic lighting design and Fabian Obispo’s subtly moody sound design. Costume designer Raven Ong’s simple contemporary fashions suitably clothe each character.
Dying in Boulder is a thoughtful celebration of humanity with all of its pain and glory.
Dying in Boulder (through March 17, 2019)
Out of the Box Theatrics
Downstairs at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.lamama.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission