Wednesday, April 27, 2022

REVIEW: Superb LIFE'S WORK Tackles Major Relationship Problem with Humor and Poignancy

by Ruth Ross

After a pandemic-mandated two-year hiatus, the stage lights came up at the Oakes Center in Summit last weekend where the Equity company at Vivid Stage (formerly known as Dreamcatcher Rep) performed a world premiere of a play by Artistic Director Laura Ekstrand.

Life’s Work examines the intimate relationships of two couples who discover what happens when their previously made agreements around work and money shift and evolve. Unfolding over the course of a week, the plot of Life’s Work addresses a critical issue faced by two couples: “Is it possible for a partnership to survive when the ground rules change?”

When Chip (Scott McGowan) suddenly decides to quit working as an attorney—something he’s been doing for two decades—he blindsides his wife Lynn (Nicole Callender), who is just returning to her career as an interior designer after years as a primary caregiver for their now-college-aged daughter. At the same time, Shelly (Emaline Williams), a young, aspiring photographer who supports herself as a barista, navigates her relationship with her more practical partner, Eduardo (Mitchell Leigh Gordon), a restaurant manager.

In 90 minutes, this production reminds me just how much I missed live theater! Zoom productions may have worked as a stop gap measure, but there is nothing like experiencing a quartet of talented actors bringing life to a playwright’s script.

Writing for actors she has worked closely with in the past, Ekstrand shows her wry wit in dialogue that resonates with the audience, as evidenced in a spirited talkback following the performance. And, when it’s delivered naturally and convincingly by the actors, her dialogue hits home with both middle-aged and younger audience members.

Director Betsy True elicits superb performances from the quartet of actors with just the right touch to meld comedy and drama. As Chip and Lynn, McGowan (right) and Callender project the world-weariness and hope of a middle-aged couple—he, tired of working as a lawyer for people he barely respects (and from whom he gets no respect); she, anxious to leave housekeeping behind and stretch her wings to resume a career she'd put on hold. McGowan is especially fine in his giddiness at suddenly finding himself with nothing to do. He tries yoga and Zumba, goes to museums, and drinks coffee at a local java joint, where he meets Shelly and becomes enamored of her photographs. Yet he can poignantly project the withering of a soul in the face of a work grind that elicits zero respect.

Callender (left, with Gordon) tempers that giddiness with practical, no-nonsense questions about what happened to the “contract” they made when they first got married: He would work and support the family while she stayed home and took care of their child. Her hopeful attitude is just simmering beneath the surface, and we empathize with her sadness that, because of Chip’s selfishness, she may not be able to pursue her dream. Her recital of what it's like to be a stay-at-home mom resonates. That the two have performed together before is evident in their interaction and chemistry as they attempt to iron out their differences.

The connection between Shelly and Eduardo is more tenuous; they are not married and have made no contract. Indeed, they are taking each day as it comes. Both are passionate about their work; Gordon’s enthusiasm for his job as manager of an outlet of a national restaurant chain is palpable in his exchange with Lynn when she comes in for a drink. Yet, of the four characters, he is the only one who hasn’t gone to college, so his prospects are more limited. Just watching his body language (right) during a meal the four share as the others talk about their educational backgrounds is worth the price of a ticket: sullen, humiliated, embarrassed, shrinking before our eyes. It’s a masterful performance. 

As the bright-eyed Shelly, Williams (left) is a buoyant, chirpy barista and a proud photographer, flattered by the attention of an older, presumably more experienced man (although Chip knows nothing about photography). That she is not willing to settle for marriage and a family just yet is testament to her optimism and drive. In fact, Eduardo and Shelly mirror a younger Chip and Lynn. Is the older couple’s situation a harbinger of what will become of their relationship?

Jack Golden’s set design, furnished with props efficiently and quietly rolled on and off during the myriad of scene changes (16!), transport us to seven residential and business venues. Zach Pizza’s lighting and Jeff Knapp’s sound designs enhance the production without being intrusive.

After working from home for the past two years and just now getting back to the workplace, many couples may be questioning the role of work/employment in intimate relationships. Life’s Work is a cogent, thoughtful, often funny examination of the value of work and the respect one derives from it—at home and in the office. You won’t want to miss this play!

Life’s Work will be performed at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Avenue, Summit, through May 1. For information and tickets, go to online.