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March 24, 2016

Mortality That Makes You Laugh


Going to a Place where you Already Are asks big questions — but it’s so firmly based in character-driven humor that it is anything but didactic. The characters are grappling with their own troubles navigating their relationships with one another, due to their opposing viewpoints.

First, we meet Joe and Roberta. They’re a lively older couple whom we first see at a funeral for Joe’s co-worker. Since he barely knew her, Joe and Roberta attend more out of a sense of social obligation than anything else. They’re avowed atheists, especially Joe, and attending church service is not part of their regular life—mostly weddings and funerals, and these days it’s more often the latter. The play opens with them in a pew, lightly commenting on the action around them. The setting makes Roberta begin to realize their mortality and the conversation turns to the question of what might happen to people when they die. Roberta used to be a believer, and there are some things she can’t dismiss as easily as Joe can.

Next, we meet Ellie and Jonas. They met yesterday by chance, and surprisingly they have quickly wound up in bed together. In contrast to Joe and Roberta’s longstanding relationship, Ellie and Jonas are just beginning to feel their way towards each other. They have an instant connection and are so comfortable with one another—if only there weren’t the hurdles of life (and Ellie’s overwhelming questions and insecurities) to get in their way…mid-conversation, Ellie dismisses a call from her step-Grandmother Roberta, but briefly wonders what she’s calling about.

Roberta has been complaining about back pain, probably from bending over to weed the dandelions last week, but Joe thinks she must have pinched a nerve. When the pain doesn’t subside after a few days, Roberta is sent for what is intended to be a routine MRI, until an allergic reaction causes her heart to stop momentarily. While Joe sits at her bedside, Roberta sees herself in a foreign place she doesn’t understand, being greeted by someone she doesn’t know but who feels terribly familiar. Suddenly, she returns to consciousness, and Joe tells her what happened, that she had a brief scare but she’s fine now. Roberta doesn’t need his explanation; she knows exactly where she went—to heaven. Joe gently ignores her passionate descriptions as a dream, but their attention is grabbed when the doctor returns and tells them the MRI showed bad news. Roberta’s full of tumors, and it’s not looking good for her. Her experience in heaven doesn’t seem so far-fetched after all, but Joe refuses to focus on anything except finding an impossible and non-existent cure. Roberta’s more interested in the larger philosophical question, and accepts her fate because she already knows where she’s going to go next.

Going to a Place where you Already Are was first heard by SCR audiences in a NewSCRipts reading, followed later that season by a reading as part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival. Anyone who attended either of those readings will discover that the character’s trajectories have changed significantly. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter explains that this is a normal part of her process, that she finds herself constantly writing and re-writing, including changing the fates of the characters.

Artistic Director Marc Masterson was impressed by Brunstetter’s skill as a writer and was drawn to directing the project himself. “What struck me first about Going to a Place was the sense that ‘I’m in the hands of a writer who has this vivid idea of who these people are and is able to bring them to life for me in a very short span of time.’” Brunstetter is highly collaborative, and needs the feedback from the cast to fine-tune what she wants to say. Masterson has convened a top-notch cast: SCR favorites Linda Gehringer, Hal Landon, Jr. and Rebecca Mozo, who are joined by two people making their SCR debut, Stephen Ellis and Christopher Thornton (though both have been with the play throughout its stages of development).

Brunstetter creates characters like Joe, Roberta, Ellie, and Jonas with great skill and empathy, placing them carefully in awkward situations and then using humor and heart to have them stumble their way through. They can’t always control their fates, but to have questions amid the daily struggles is a fact of humanity. Roberta’s impending mortality is hard for everyone, but her brief near-death experience of heaven which she finds comforting makes Joe irrational. How can you adapt when something occurs that is outside of your belief system? What does it mean to have faith—and what does it mean for those around you?

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