Brian PJ Cronin's I Am At My Best When I Am Singing Very Quietly began as a submission for the beginning of a new play in response to the phrase Beginning the American Spirit.
What Cronin has spun out from that phrase is a marvelous, nearly epic journey into the heart of an America learning to deal with the lingering death of its innocence. Through the eyes of a 15-year-old known only as Boy, the seemingly random pattern of events that makes up an individual's life experience unfolds as he is sent on a cross-country journey by a 100-year-old man who may or may not be his father. Along the way, Boy becomes involved in a series of Candide-like adventures that force him to grow up and face who he really is. Nothing makes sense in a literal way as Boy (along with his talking dog, Alexander) meets up with a runaway teenage girl, a helpful ghost trucker, a failed priest, and a series of omniscient waitresses named Doris, and yet when viewed as a whole, the seemingly chaotic jumble merged into a single work of enormous power.
Cronin's script isn't completely successful in tying all of the crazy-quilt elements together cohesively (the subplot with the failed priest isn't as clearly presented as it needs to be), but director Jessica Davis-Irons nevertheless mined it for every rich vein of gold that it does possess. Her production was a well-oiled machine, swiftly moving and brilliantly conceived, and performed with remarkable agility by a uniformly superb ensemble.
Jeremy Ellison Gladstone was a terrific bundle of energy as the 15-year-old Boy, his gangly movement and blustery bravado barely masking his character's less-than-self-confident teenage persona, while Arthur Aulisi (channeling the Henry Fonda of On Golden Pond to superb effect as the 100-year-old "Old Man Dad") proved that stillness can be just as effective in making breathtaking points. Shayna Ferm's loyal Alexander was a tour de force of touching invention; William Peden was a wonderfully sinister, intriguing presence as the Ghost Trucker; Liz Thompson captured the essence of the little girl hiding behind a mask of teenage self-assurance as the runaway Cindy; and Alex Goldberg was a cool, edgy, and believably failed priest. Matthew Hamm played a variety of roles with astonishing versatility, as did Lilah Fisher as a variety of Dorises. As the narrator, probably the most difficult role to pull off, Gwyneth Dobson made her expositional dialog glow with a deep-shaded, alluringly sensual personality. Michael Haverty, Emily Nella, and Seth Samuels rounded out the cast as a vocally adept and charming "Trucker Chorus."
Michael Darling's all-purpose set captured the moods of the play with rough-hewn elegance, Jacy Barber's costumes likewise, and Owen Hughes lit the production with colorfully sharp precision. Beautiful to look at, beautifully written, directed, and performed, I Am At My Best When I Am Singing Very Quietly was thought-provoking, heart-breaking, and giddily exciting all at once, an evening of theatre on the very highest level.
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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita