Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
In the loving embrace of a familiar church hymn, Roberta, much to her spouse’s surprise, breaks down in tears at a near-stranger’s funeral. Neither are religious, particularly Joe, her skeptical husband. But Roberta, overcome in spiritual nostalgia, cries out the age-old question of human mortality: “Where are we going?”
In Going to a Place where you Already Are, now getting its commissioned premiere at South Coast Repertory under the direction of Marc Masterson, Bekah Brunstetter ponders this uncertainty.
When a near-death experience has our leading lady convinced she’s been to heaven and back, her other-half postulates a more practical explanation for her alleged adventure, much to her dismay. Meanwhile, their granddaughter Ellie fights her own earthly shackles when a one-night stand poses a similar “Where are we going?” “Nowhere” appears her self-defeating answer, though bedmate Jonas would rather believe something heavenly awaits their potential coupling.
Where other works establish worlds where the spiritual realm is decidedly real, Going to a Place has opposing objectives. On one hand it promotes philosophical, scientific discourse, each character getting ample time across many scenes to share their thoughts on the afterlife (an approach that can come across as too “issue-oriented,” sacrificing plot and character believability and richness). On the other hand it seeks to provide answers to ancient questions — in 80 minutes, no less — spoiling the joy of exploration and limiting post-show discussion: when a playwright provides answers to Life’s biggest mystery, what else is there to talk about?
Performances have shining moments, though remain mostly adequate. Linda Gehringer (Roberta) is best when displaying heightened emotions, yet overplays mundane banter. The opening scene in a church pew may leave some wondering why our leading couple didn’t get any “shh’s” while talking through a solemn funeral. Hal Landon Jr. (Joe) is more earthbound in his performance, paralleling his character’s position that life ceases when the body dies.
Rebecca Mozo does a respectable job in her portrayal of the relationship-resistant Ellie. And Christopher Thornton brings a dry humor to the love-seeking Jonas.
Stephen Ellis is grand in gestures and vocalizations as a heavenly Angel, yet matter-of-fact when appearing on earth.
Scenic design by Michael B. Raiford is clean, elegant and simplistic — an efficient choice for much of the play, though troublesome when its presentation of heaven doesn’t nearly match the glorious description Roberta gives it.
Like Be A Good Little Widow before it, Going to a Place features Brunstetter’s signature quirk. In this case, repeated references to mustard, ice cream and cigarettes gives the piece a specificity.
Moreover, characters who struggle to behave “normally” when life presents seemingly insurmountable obstacles make their way into the script.
Yet, where Widow succeeds in exploring death and grief with whimsy and depth, Going to a Place where you Already Are is in over its head, giving elementary answers to existential quandaries. To prevent theater-goers from going to a place where they may already be, a more clever, if purposefully ambiguous, handling of the material could have elevated the piece and made for a more wondrous journey.
Running Time: 80 minutes – no intermission.