Review by Karen Topham, American theatre Critics association member; photos by First Folio
Sometimes a play becomes such a powerful and emotional experience that you don’t want it to end. You are so caught up in the characters, the acting, the storytelling, that bringing it to closure, while necessary, is almost painful. This was my reaction to First Folio’s Mary’s Wedding, a “dream play” set during World War One about the deep love between its two characters and the war that tears them apart. Far beyond the tears on my cheeks at the end, this play moved me throughout with two powerful performances, outstanding direction, lovely technical elements, and a complex script that makes an aspiring playwright like myself quiver with jealousy.
The story isn’t all that complicated, really. Mary (Heather Chrisler) informs us from the start that she is narrating a recurring dream she has, and Charlie (Debo Balogun) tells us that the play will be messing with time, that it “starts at the end and ends at the beginning” and blends and overlaps time sequences throughout, much as a dream does. The ensuing dream shows us two parallel stories: the blossoming love between the protagonists and Charlie’s experiences during the war. Because of the time shifts, the play begins slowly and takes a bit of getting used to, much like watching a show where characters have thick accents: at first you have to work to understand and then somehow it all shifts into a version of “normal” that is completely comprehensible. Here it is the highly inventive overlaps of past and present that take getting used to, but you quickly settle in and enjoy the ride.
Charlie is a Canadian farmer’s son and an expert horseback rider. One early scene shows the invigoration and ecstasy he feels while riding; the horse and he are one and it almost seems that only on horseback is he truly grounded. Mary is the daughter of a well-to-do British immigrant whose mother balks at her relationship with someone of such a very different class. Despite the mother’s disapproval though, the couple fall in love and part only when the war drags him away. On the ship to England, he meets Sgt. Gordon Muriel Flowerdew (also played by Chrisler), who becomes his friend and mentor. Chrisler’s Flowerdew is played without costume changes; in fact, there is a reference, for the audience’s benefit, to the oddity: the sergeant asks Charlie, who is staring in his direction while thinking about home, “What do I look like, a girl in a nightie?” Well, yes, he does, but, as Flowerdew helps Charlie to understand that he will see Mary everywhere, the strangeness of that is just another thing that fades into the background, as does the dream logic that has Mary receiving letters from the front while speaking with a not-yet-a-soldier Charlie during their courtship.
There is a singular beauty in the lyricism of this play and in the various stage pictures that director Melanie Keller creates on Angela Weber Miller’s two-story barn set. Keller has her actors using every inch of the available space, climbing ladders and hay bales to get to different locations and create new pictures. For a two-person play, there is a heck of a lot of variety going on here. Another aspect that Keller tackles brilliantly is the dream: her pacing is absolutely perfect here; too fast and we would lose the atmosphere, too slow and she will lose her audience. She manages to find exactly the right rhythms to keep this ethereal story moving along. In this she is aided by lighting (Michael McNamara) and sound design and original music (Christopher Kriz). There are wonderful sequences involving thunderstorms and battles in which these two elements alone create the pace, and Keller’s quick switches between Canada and the front, sometimes within a single sound cue, play perfectly.
But this is a show that belongs to the script and the actors. Playwright Stephen Massicotte’s script, with all of its overlapping moments and beautiful set pieces, presents Chrisler and Balogun with a template on which to create memorable characters. Balogun’s Charlie, terrified of the lightning, shrinks away from an oncoming storm yet possesses the strength to join the infantry crossing No Man’s Land every single night in an attempt to gain ground on the Germans, and is the single member of the cavalry to break through German lines in another scene. His horseback scenes are so exhilarating you’d swear afterward that they had a real horse onstage. Balogun has the depth required to let us see all of these emotions clearly; his battlefield charge is a kind of a small miracle of acting.
It’s Chrisler, though, who has the bulk of the work to do in this play. Constantly shifting (often without the help of lighting changes) from past to present, from narrating the dream to living within it, from being Mary to being Flowers, Chrisler dominates the stage. Her dream-Mary is perpetually happy and joyful, the picture of a young woman in the throes of love for the first time. Her narrator-Mary is infused by a kind of sadness and overwhelming weariness; this dream takes a toll. Her doomed Flowers (it’s in the program’s director’s notes: he was a real person, so this is hardly a spoiler) is a pleasure: without any costume or even vocal changes, she simply morphs into this empathic character by shifting stance and tone of voice. It’s truly an awesome performance, one that (as I said) left me in tears.
Mary’s Wedding is a highly charged, emotional rollercoaster of a play, one that I am very happy to have experienced. Kriz’s quiet and contemplative background music and Keller’s direction help keep the whole complicated thing together, and Balogan and Chrisler are revelations. This is one of the finest shows I have seen in 2018.
Mary’s Wedding is a First Folio Theatre production now playing at the Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 31st St., off Rt. 83, in Oak Brook, until April 29. Performance times vary; check the website . Tickets are available from First Folio Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.