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A Death in the Family
Next Act's Fearless Staging of "Three Views of the Same Object."

There will likely be many different opinions about Three Views of the Same Object, which opened at the Next Act Theatre this weekend. But I suspect almost everyone will agree that it follows paths not often trod by local theaters (or even contemporary theater in general).

I’ll admit my opinion is colored by my acquaintance with some of the actors in the piece, and can imagine just how personal Henry Murray’s play is at this moment in their lives.

But since it is a play about love and death—in the most literal sense—it’s hard to imagine anyone not finding resonance between the story of Poppy and Jesse and events—past, present or future--in their own life.

Murray doesn’t make it easy. This is not a syrupy or sentimentalized portrait of a cute elderly couple. There is lust and vitriol along with the flirtation and tenderness. Not to mention drunkenness, failing bodily functions, and deep existential despair. It’s no accident that the play’s opening lines are from Samuel Beckett, evoking the tenacious, for-better-or-worse bond that is forged over the course of a marriage.

Here, the marriage is in its later years. Poppy (Jim Pickering and John Kishline) is a recently retired biology professor—quiet, reflective, given to reading or keeping track of the neighborhood birds through the front picture window. Jesse (Flora Coker, Susan Sweeney and Laurie Birmingham) is more spirited, a doting partner (often) who occasionally writes poetry.

Laurie Birmingham and Jim Pickering. Photo by Timothy Moder.

The couple’s bond is so strong, in fact, that years ago they agreed to a “suicide pact”—they vowed to die together, neither wanting to live on without the other. And now, Poppy is being treated for cancer.

The Three Views of the title involve three different ways this basic scenario plays out (as you might guess from the multiple actors listed for each character). And Murray’s compelling idea—he owes a lot to Alan Ayckbourn here—is to present the three stories simultaneously on the same stage, weaving in and out of the same rooms, interacting with Mrs. Widkin (Jenny Wanasek), the university friend who brings casseroles and shares department gossip. The action takes place over the course of a single day—an offstage voice announces the day and time before each scene—it takes place in the same split level, suburban house (the fine set design is by William Boles); and it involves the same couple. But in each “view” the same characters behave differently, create three different stories from the same pair of characters in the same basic circumstances.

It’s a bold conceit in an art form that usually strives to create characters that have a certain unity and inevitability. But Murray’s play speaks to life events that reach deep into the psyche, knocking at the carefully constructed foundations we’ve developed and depended on over the span of a life time.

As such, the script is a somewhat wild balance of weighty epigrams and the everyday moments of a lived life (much like the world of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town). Director Shawn Douglass and his impressive cast move between these extremes with subtlety and care, letting some of the play’s more profound moments ring in the air just a bit before getting on with the rest of the play’s business. Some might accuse Murray of overwriting some of the scenes, but his willingness to explore the most private and explosive emotions of these stories strikes me as a brave stance during a time when detached irony seems to rule storytelling conventions. It’s a courageous play with fearless performances that shouldn’t be missed. 

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