The Waking Point

It’s a good thing that Lisa Kron’s new play has been renamed since its premiere this March at L.A.’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Down there it was called The Wake, which is misleading because although a funeral is mentioned at one point, it’s not really a major plot point. Now that the world premiere production has come to Berkeley Rep it’s called In the Wake, which may be a bit cryptic but is more apt, as ultimately the play deals with the damage each of us leaves in his or her wake like Godzillas of emotion.

Heidi Schreck, Andrea Frankle, Miriam Glover, Danielle Skraastad, Carson Elrod and Dierdre O’Connell in In the Wake. Photo courtesy of

Director Leigh Silverman and playwright, solo performer and Five Lesbian Brothers cofounder Kron will next bring the play to New York’s Public Theater in October. It’s tempting to think that the title will add a word with each production—the next being Left in the Wake or something like that—but this is probably a good stopping point. There are no Bay Area artists among the cast, although some of the designers are local and a couple of the actors have played Berkeley Rep before.

David Korins’s set of a very lived-in New York apartment is terrific, with dingy off-off-white walls, a time-flattened couch and stuffed chair, books piled on homemade shelves around the front door, views into the small kitchen and bedroom, and an exterior view of the fire escape on the far left of the stage. The set is ringed with a thick white frame that at first made me wonder if it was designed for a smaller stage, but the frame comes into its own as a design element as a distorted screen for projections between scenes, and as a frame that protagonist Ellen steps into whenever she addressed the audience in one of her many monologues.

After an especially vague opening monologue, when the actual play begins Ellen is glued to TV coverage of the still unresolved 2000 election, while her long-term boyfriend, Danny, is trying to get her in the Thanksgiving spirit with kitschy pieces of pilgrim gear. Danny’s sister Kayla and her wife Laurie live in the same building, and the couples hang out together all the time as if it were an episode of Friends. Much is made of the fact that the lesbians are married while the straight couple isn’t, mainly due to Ellen’s nonchalance around the whole idea of marriage—or, as it turns out, commitment.

Ellen and Danny have a sweet, comfortable relationship. Ellen is given to passionate tirades on the familiar excesses of the Bush administration, and Heidi Schreck makes them work with eloquence, force of personality and a sense of not taking herself too seriously even when she takes what she’s talking about very seriously. In an instantly endearing performance by Carson Elrod, Danny’s a sweet, funny, easy-going guy, attentive and low maintenance to a fault.

It’s hard not to sympathize with the guy when Ellen meets someone on a trip to Boston: Amy, the sister of a friend of hers from high school. Amy, a filmmaker, is played by Emily Donahoe with keen attention, sparkling intelligence and a jagged edge of vulnerability that tells you someone’s going to get hurt and it’s probably going to be her.  “When I saw that article about you in the Times, I thought, that’s the person I’m going to marry,” Amy says. She’s completely smitten with Ellen, and they lose all track of time as they talk—well, Ellen talks—for hours.  It feels to Ellen like a relationship she has to pursue, so she does.

Surprisingly, she’s completely open about it. The unbelievably understanding Danny reluctantly accepts it as something she’s got to see through to fully realize what she has with him, and Kayla and Laurie just don’t talk about it. None of the difficult work of coming to terms with things happens onstage—it’s all established by the time we see Ellen again. On the one hand it feels like a wasted opportunity to develop the relationship in scene, but it’s refreshing that Ellen’s wandering heart isn’t justified by making Danny seem ineffectual, annoying or a jerk. Amy says, “I see what you and Danny have, and even I don’t think you should leave him.”

Andrea Frankle is pleasant and outgoing as Kayla, who’s a peacemaker like her brother but more willing to call people on their shit, and there’s an appealing edge to Danielle Skraastad’s Laurie, a spark of temper that’s all the more powerful because it’s thinly hidden behind a stiff smile and incessant nodding when something’s bothering her. Most importantly, Ellen, Danny, Kayla and Laurie have a good group chemistry and ease about them that makes the sense of family totally believable.

As Ellen’s friend Judy, Deirdre O’Connell at first seems simply a Debbie Downer type, rumpled and slack-jawed as if she’d just rolled out of bed, which she did. At first she’s there because she crashed at Ellen’s place after a long flight from Guinea, where she’d been working in a refugee camp. Barely grunting acknowledgement at people’s questions and pleasantries and spending most of her time chain-smoking on the fire escape, she’s impossible to talk to for anyone but Ellen, and over the course of the play she goes from someone whom you wonder how or why Ellen even knows to her chief confidante and truth-telling foil. Especially after she moves to Washington, DC, it feels a little strange to see her around Ellen’s place so often, but that’s just because we’re not seeing all the time in between when she’s not there.

There’s a whole lot of political debate in this play, usually dominated by Ellen with others almost playing devil’s advocate, as everyone’s somewhere or other on the left. The closest there is to a non-leftist perspective is Judy’s niece Tessa, charmingly portrayed by Miriam F. Glover, which is easily dismissible because she’s a kid fresh off the bus from Kentucky who’s all too quick to call herself stupid. The points made about Bush aren’t exactly breaking any new ground, but Judy makes some strong points about the middle-class American assumption that life is supposed to be fair (amid some much less convincing fatalism that American democracy is a lost cause because it’s always been a fixed game).

It’s not a tidy play by any means. Years pass between scenes, represented by headline and news clip montages of the 2000 and 2004 elections, 9/11, the Iraq invasion and Hurricane Katrina projected on the frame around the stage. In that time characters move in and out of town, and a new character is introduced in one scene and dropped by the next. Events that seem important in one scene, such as an upcoming funeral, are long forgotten by the next scene.

Aside from Ellen, Amy never meets any of the other characters in the play. That may not be so surprising, seeing as how she lives in another city—but so does Judy, and that doesn’t stop her from hanging around Ellen’s New York apartment. Amy is so thoroughly compartmentalized in Ellen’s life, or rather outside of it, that it’s no wonder Ellen can pretend for so long that what she’s doing won’t have any consequences. Sure, she says that she knows it’s not a viable situation in the long term, but it’s clear that she doesn’t really believe that and won’t do anything to untangle it until someone forces her hand.

That means that when things do inevitably go wrong, it’s hard to have a lot of sympathy for Ellen. You want to have sympathy for Ellen because you like her. Heck, everyone likes her, and the trouble is she counts on that too much. Neither Kron’s script nor Schreck’s performance goes out of its way to make Ellen seem self-centered, but it’s obvious nonetheless. It’s obvious in the way she talks over people when she warms to a topic, in the way she thinks Amy’s a sculptor when she’s already said she makes films, and of course most prominently in the way she strings two lovers along because she doesn’t want to have to choose a path.

It’s not that she needs to meet her “comeuppance” like a woman who’s strayed from the straight-and-narrow in some old melodrama, although in a sense that’s exactly what happens. But when she talks about her own blind spot it’s hard not to think, “And it’s taken you this long to figure this out? Really?” The show’s ending makes it a little too easy to take the play simply as a portrait of privilege. Ellen’s learning something from her experience and is processing it aloud. She realizes she needs to make a change, but like most of the key developments in the play, whatever changes she eventually makes will happen offstage.

The play is three hours long and really, really doesn’t need to be. Some of the impassioned political debates could easily be whittled down a bit. The main problem is that each act is bracketed and interspersed with monologues in which Ellen just repeats things she’s already said in conversation and tries to wrap things up with a tidy moral. All of these could easily be dropped—not incorporated into dialogue, just cut outright. But it’s a smart, funny play, and if it doesn’t make you rethink your political assumptions it might at least make you reflect on what you take for granted in your life and in your relationships. It’s a good sign when a play leaves so much food for thought in its wake.

In the Wake
Through June 27
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2015 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #57 of 2010, attended May 19.

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