Whenever someone passes away unexpectedly, it’s common for people to examine their own lives – where they have been, where they may go. When that person is someone young, vibrant and has everything to live for, the heartbreak and guilt of that person’s loved ones adds to the confusion. Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s production of Look, We are Breathing, a world premiere play written by up-and-coming Chicago playwright Laura Jacqmin and directed by Megan Shuchman, sucks us into the whirlwind of conflicted feelings and lasting emotional scars. I was truly taken in and left limp, wondering how I should live and love on this life journey.
The story centers around Mike, a popular high school junior on the hockey team, who is killed in a car accident on the way home from a party. He was high and drunk, which we find is not so uncommon an occurrence. We meet his mother, his AP English teacher, and a student as they try to make sense of the loss and what Mike’s life meant to them.
Tara Mallen plays Alice, Mike’s mother. As is often the case after a death, she copes in solemn numbness as she scrambles to do what needs to be done – identifying her son at the morgue, selecting a dress. We glimpse her frustrations with her teenage son, her difficulties with her husband, and ultimately, her great pain. Mallen’s matter-of-fact performance is gripping. That sense of floating above it all while wondering if she had somehow been a factor in his death hits hard.
Leticia, Mike’s high school AP English teacher, is played by Lily Mojekwu. Lily struggles to make a difference in her students’ lives to validate her own. Her attempts to engage Mike in her English class have mixed results and when he dies, she wonders about her ability to reach any student. I could feel her hopelessness and her desire to carry on as she grieves for a wasted moment with a student who was both insightful and hurtful.
Caylee, played by Brenann Stacker, is a sensitive and awkward classmate of Mike’s. She doesn’t quite belong with the popular students and she wants desperately to have a boy – Mike – notice her. She has her hook-up moment with him at the party he attends just before he crashes his car, and she wonders if he could be her boyfriend. She makes a decision to keep his attention and after he dies, she thinks about that moment as a lost chance. Stacker gives Caylee an innocence that broke my heart. Caylee is girl who gives too much for too little in return. It doesn’t seem so far from the truth that many teenage girls face in their desire for love and acceptance.
And finally, Brendan Meyer portrays Mike. Meyer captures that swagger and ultra-confidence that so many teen boys work to achieve. He is bright, but underachieves. He loves his mother, but he acts out, disobeys, and ultimately masks his underlying pain with pot, booze, and pretty girls. We only glimpse his pain when we see him get behind the wheel and begin his journey home. Meyer punctuates that pain by playing out that scene many times over. And when we finally hear the crash, we are jolted and we are changed. For many of us, his journey could have been ours. But we made it out the other side.
The minimal theatre in the round set (Scene Design by Mike Mroch) keeps us focused on the characters and their stories. The entire play is a conversation. These people speak to us. They tell us of their pain and their job. Their hopelessness and their hopes. I found myself nodding at the characters as if I were right there with them, and at the end, I breathed. In. Out. It’s what we do.
The Rivendell Theatre is in its 20th season. Their aim is to advance women’s lives through the power of theatre, dedicated to producing artistically challenging and original plays created by and about women.
Look, We are Breathing is playing through May 16 at the Rivendell Theatre Ensemble space, 5779 N. Ridge Avenue in Chicago. Call the box office at 773-334-7728 or visit their website here.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Brosilow.