Playwright: Bekah Brunstetter. At: Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr Ave. Tickets: $30-$35. Runs through: July 23
Rare is the human being who has not grappled with the mystery of death and its aftermath. Cultural speculations on the realms beyond the grave encompass simple regression to the earth ( as observed in animals ) and regeneration ( as observed in plants ), as well as elaborate recycling schemes involving transmigration into altered physical states. Christianity, however, promises its believers eternal liberation from corporal restraints within a mythic sanctuarydescriptions of which differ widely, no first-hand witness accounts ever having been reported.
Roberta and Joe have enjoyed 30 years of marriage, comfortable in their atheist rejection of conventional dogma, but attendance at the funerals endemic to their age bracket brings them into ever-increasing proximity with Protestant Christian gospel lore. One day, while undergoing an MRI for what will turn out to be cancer, Roberta has a momentary vision of a boyish concierge offering her entry into a domain he identifies as heaven. This precipitates a crisis of um, faith as Roberta contemplates the possibility of a future bereft of her beloved husbandmisgivings shared by her granddaughter Ellie, whose recent love-at-first-sight epiphany also introduces uncertainty over the wisdom of investment in ephemeral joys.
Fiction exploring the boundaries of mortality tends to avoid knotty theological arguments in favor of whimsical fancies cobbled from a melange of spiritual hearsay. Bekah Brunstetter refuses to traffic in harps, wings or angels from Dubuque dancing on pins, though, instead zeroing in on the fundamental question of where we go after we leave here. The answer, it emerges, lies not in any particular sectarian creed, but in each individual's personal bliss. For Roberta, the paradise awaiting her is a place of favorite smells, sounds, foodsall the ice cream she wantsand eventually Joe, too, once he discovers where to look for her.
Even a cosmological approach as rational and egalitarian as Brunstetter's could quickly succumb to sticky sentimentality in the wrong hands, but director Matt Hawkins never allows his actors to engage in stereotypal cuddliness, whether of the geriatric, millennial or ambisexual varieties. Kathleen Ruhl and Art Fox anchor an ensemble making the most of Redtwist's tiny studio space ( no easy task when stage furnishings include a laptop screen, a hospital bed and a motorized wheelchair ) to invoke a cozy intimacy belying the weighty issues under scrutiny.